Eight Questions to Ask When Selecting the Right Food-Grade Conveyor System

Not all conveyors are designed specifically for handling food.

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It may be tempting for food processing manufacturers to view conveying equipment as an add-on investment that simply moves ingredients and product where it needs to be for processing and packaging.

However, purchasing reliable conveyor systems can add real value to a manufacturer’s operations by helping protect and even enhance the quality of their products and the efficiency of their processes.

It starts with making informed decisions about what equipment is needed and where it’s sourced.

When a processor is in the market for food-grade conveyor systems, here are eight key questions to consider when choosing the best solution.

1) Is it a true sanitary conveyor?

Not all conveyors are designed specifically for handling foodstuffs. If manufacturers are buying an off-the-shelf solution, they should be sure it is indeed a food-safe sanitary conveyor that can handle the elevated hygiene requirements of processing foods.

Look for conveyor designs that include: 

  • Materials that resist bacteria growth, like stainless steel and food-safe plastics
  • Washdown-resistant materials and construction
  • Sloped surfaces to drain water and limit condensation build-up
  • Radiused corners and smooth, well-placed welds
  • Tight tolerances and smooth joins to limit bacteria harboring
  • Minimal food contact with fasteners, washers, or threads

If handling foods particularly susceptible to bacterial contamination, like fresh meats or dairy, ensure all food-contact surfaces on the conveyor are made of stainless steel and that its construction includes no hollow tubing that could harbor moisture.

For these applications, it’s also best to look for conveyors that meet the IP69K standard that ensures maximum water-tightness to better resist repeated high-temperature washdown and sanitation procedures.

2) Does it meet (and exceed) food safety regulations?

When considering buying a new or used conveyor, be sure to ask for proof that the equipment meets the minimum regulatory food safety and hygiene requirements for the application.

Depending on the planned application, a true sanitary conveyor must meet a range of regulatory and industry standards. These include benchmarks determined by:

  • FDA
  • USDA
  • Consumer Brands Association
  • American Bakers Association 

What’s more, regulations have evolved and become consistently tighter over time. That’s why many leading food manufacturers only buy equipment from suppliers whose equipment already exceeds the existing regulations and industry benchmarks.

3) Which conveyor type is best for the product?

Different conveyor types move products differently. Belt, bucket, and incline conveyors, tote dumpers, horizontal motion, and vibratory conveyors are all designed to solve particular food handling problems.

Determining the best fit depends on the specific handling requirements of food products at any point in the process. Some key questions to ask include:

  • What are the sanitary requirements of the product at this point in my process? These change as raw foods are processed into cooked, packaged products.
  • What are the handling characteristics of the food at this point? Are foodstuffs frozen, raw, or cooked? Solid or liquid? Fine or granular? Hot or cold? Oily, waxy, or sticky? Large, small, or irregularly shaped? Are they fragile or susceptible to bruising?
  • Does the product require handling or processing while being conveyed? Do foodstuffs need to be cooled, heated, or frozen? Do they need to be dewatered, dried, graded, screened, or positioned? Do products need to be mixed at a set ratio?
  • What are the physical constraints of this production zone? This might include the maximum space available, distance to the next line process, and necessary changes in height or direction.
  • How will my conveying equipment integrate with other equipment? Custom modifications might be required to allow one or more OEM units to work together.

The answers to these questions will help determine the options. For example, raw and frozen meats and dairy products may require vibratory or horizontal motion conveyors with the highest level of sanitary protection, while packaging operations may need less. In addition:

  • Conventional belt conveyors are a versatile choice for many foods, from grains and dry bulk ingredients to baked products, produce, and packaged goods. In addition, they’re preferred for precise food placement for pick-and-place applications.
  • Horizontal motion conveyors are unsuitable for fine materials but are effective at moving frozen foods and hard, granular products like pasta. Their gentle gliding motion also makes them the go-to choice for delicate or seasoned items like snacks or pastries.
  • Vibratory conveyors are effective for moving small or powdery products like nuts and grains and delicate items like chocolates. The controlled agitation of these machines is also suitable for dewatering, grading, screening, or mixing foods while in transit.

Be aware that the physical constraints of the process or plant may also affect which conveyor is selected. Belt, horizontal motion, and vibratory conveyors can raise and lower product within limits, but significant height changes require a bucket elevator conveyor system.

Belt and vibratory conveyors move foods at a steady rate and are preferred where foods need to be heated, cooled, dried, or frozen while in transit. Horizontal motion conveyors allow many food products to be visually inspected while moving through the final stages of production.

Horizontal motion and, to some extent, vibratory conveyors are constrained in the lengths individual machines can cover. It may take a series of several units to cover the same distance that a single belt conveyor could span.

With so many factors in play, choosing a reputable sanitary equipment supplier offering the full range of conveying options is important. Only leading brand manufacturers have the experience and engineering expertise to:

  • Identify the ideal conveying technology for a specific product
  • Integrate conveyors with new or existing OEM food-processing equipment
  • Deliver customized conveying solutions for the line, processing zone, or plant

4) Will my conveyor deliver the throughput and capacity I need?

With all the details in place, it’s time to assess whether the technology, customization and integrations will deliver the daily throughput and overall line capacity needed.

Some conveyors are available in broader belt or pan configurations to boost capacity, while variable speed equipment (such as many horizontal motion models) allows the manufacturer to fine-tune throughput according to their changing needs.

Better integration with existing equipment will typically also help boost overall line capacity. With that in mind, if a given piece of equipment can’t deliver the raw capacity needed, reconsider the options.

5) What about customization options?

Customizing conveyors enables their use in dramatically different applications.

For example, adding non-stick pans to horizontal motion conveyors allows them to handle greasy or sticky foods in the final stages of processing, while using specially designed screens on vibratory conveyors will enable them to drain dipped or fried foods.

There’s no substitute for experience in understanding how different types of foodstuffs act when handled in bulk. Work with a food conveyor equipment specialist to identify the best mix of technology and customization for the operation.

6) Will it fit my plant configuration?

The preferred handling technology for a product must be balanced against the realities of the plant and line setup.

For example, bucket elevators or incline belt conveyors are the go-to solution when a product must be moved up or down more than just a few feet, while U-shaped curved conveyors are used to move around structures and equipment or add cooling loops into a line.

Planning for system support infrastructure like adjacent mezzanines and catwalks may also be a consideration.

7) Will it integrate with my existing equipment?

New conveying equipment should link as seamlessly as possible with existing line equipment. Consider the speed and temperatures at which different pieces of equipment operate and the height and width of the entry and exit points to make sure they will align with the current system.

Also, consider whether the equipment will need to work with:

  • Customized infeed and discharge modifications
  • Specialized safety requirements like vision, metal-detecting, and X-ray equipment
  • Process-specific options like clean-in-place systems, gates, or belt scrapers
  • Safety equipment such as emergency stops, cut-offs, and fail-safes

There’s more to choosing a conveyor system than picking out a standalone piece of equipment. Working with experts who can take a “whole plant” approach to help plan how a conveyor will meet and enhance system integration is essential.

8) How much will it cost?

Finally, consider the upfront sticker price for a food-grade conveyor system. Is it within the project budget, and will the added capacity of the operation or the improved quality of the product justify the expense of purchasing, integrating, and commissioning the new equipment?

Choosing safe, efficient food-grade conveyors helps food processors protect their investment over the long haul. Keeping food safety issues in mind while carefully considering the equipment needed – and the supplier – means increased productivity and higher quality.

Barry Whitman is the director of business development at the Grote Company.

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