Moving Right Along
by Lynn Petrak
Modern conveyors and belting systems allow processors to increase efficiency and throughput.
In moving products from Point A to Point B in any given processing plant, conveyors are the highways of handling. In the journey that begins at the back door and ends at the front door of a facility, systems ranging from case conveyors to cable conveyors to carton and bottle conveyors are used in many points along the way, alone and integrated with other machinery to help manufacturers speed throughput, increase efficiency and cut down on labor costs, among other functions.
Conveyors have been around since the advent of automation within the manufacturing sector. In some cases, dairies still have conveyor systems that date to the 1980s, since machines can last 20 years or more with proper maintenance.
Companies that supply conveyors and belting systems to dairy processors continue to improve on the engineering of the machines used to quickly and reliably transfer materials and containers from one area of a plant to another. When it comes to new designs, equipment providers are keeping up and in some cases leading advancements like control technology, while listening to the changing needs of their customers.
“Dairy customers are looking for higher speeds and they are looking for higher percentage of up-time,” says Paul Calabretta, who handles new business development and engineering for Dairy Conveyor Corp., Brewster, N.Y, a company that designs, engineers, manufactures, installs and services conveyor systems for food industries — and a company that built its business on the dairy segment.
Others share the assessment that the need for speed is increasingly evident. “Probably the primary thing that dairies are looking for today is increased up-time, which provides higher efficiency in terms of actual output per hour versus theoretical output. We are also working to design conveyor systems and shunting and control systems with higher degrees of reliability,” says Mark Sickman, vice president of operations for Cannon Equipment Co., Rosemount, Minn., a manufacturer of automated material-handling machinery including bottle and stack conveyors.
Whether used to handle dairy products or containers, reliability is tied into versatility these days, as manufacturers seek to run systems for different applications. “The big trend we are seeing is flexibility. They really want to be able to run the maximum amount of product they can and want flexibility for future growth,” reports Matt Snyder, who works in sales and marketing for Dyco, Inc., a Bloomsburg, Pa., company specializing in the design, fabrication and installation of container-conveying systems.
Peter Fox, sales manager for Circle Pines, Minn.-based Delkor Systems Inc., also has seen flexibility emerge as a key feature for conveyors, from his company’s perspective as a provider of tray and carton forming, loading and closing systems and tray packaging systems that are hooked up with conveyors at various transfer points. “One significant thing is that we are providing in-feed systems for multi-pack laning. We may take different flavors of yogurt, for example, and bring them into a system where we are running conveyors and where we can provide flavor A and B,” he explains.
Across the board, conveyor and conveyor-belting designs are going quickly from the research and development phase to the operational phase. Dairies are investing in new conveyors for a variety of product types and for a number of reasons, whether they want to replace worn systems, are building new state-of-the-art plants or are upgrading lines as part of continuous improvements or due to industry consolidation.
“There is no cookie-cutter approach,” Sickman says. “In some cases, it is existing brick-and-mortar operations and they are replacing old equipment with better, faster equipment to provide increased capacity; while in other cases, they’re expanding and looking for an integrated system that will provide the most cost efficient operation.”
For his part, Snyder reports that dairy customers tend to order entire new systems as opposed to changing things on a piecemeal basis. “We are doing some updating of existing systems, and it is also driven by consolidations,” he says.
New conveyor systems can be found in all types of dairy processing facilities, although high-volume operations are likely to have bigger capital spending budgets. “Larger dairies are the big drivers, but the smaller guys are there are talking about it,” Fox says. “They’ll have to catch up eventually or use alternative measures.”
Product Delivery
Although some conveyors and belting systems have been running for a decade and sometimes two, dairy product lines have changed significantly since Ronald Reagan was president and “The Cosby Show” was must-see TV.
To be sure, the surge in new dairy product development, packaging innovations and the ever-increasing drive for faster and higher volumes have impacted conveyor and belting system design. Some changes are refinements to systems that are fairly basic in nature, while others are indicative of the latest materials and engineering know-how.
Dairy Conveyor Corp., for instance, recently unveiled a new vacuum conveyor to accommodate the dairy industry’s ongoing switch to plastic bottles from paperboard cartons. “The vacuum conveyor uses a vacuum to hold bottles to the conveyor, to prevent tipping. It is used in unique bottle applications and in higher speed applications,” Calabretta explains.
Cannon Equipment also answered the call when dairies began to handle different bottles for fluid milk, developing its Versa container handling system a few years ago. “Traditional head-style casers that were built for many years were predicated on square containers, and when they introduced round bottles, they didn’t work so well in these casers,” Sickman says. “So we developed a different type of caser that was more along the lines of beverage industry casers that lets the round bottles seek their own home.”
Most recently, Cannon Equipment has developed mat-top conveyor systems that handle both containers and products. One application, as Sickman describes, is moving bricks of butter. “Butter is quite soft as it comes from the molding process and there are issues to deal with in conveying it, as it is only wrapped in wax paper,” he says. “You have to be careful with transitions and hand-offs to be able to avoid damaging the brick.”
Presenting Their Cases
Container-handling equipment is another major area of development for conveyor and belting system suppliers. Dairy Conveyor Corp., which offers knee-high, on-floor and in-floor systems for dairy cases, has responded to emerging industry demands with a new conveyor for the types of corrugated cases that are gradually replacing plastic milk cases in many milk plants.
“We now integrate corrugated box conveyors into our jobs, and in some cases they are manufactured by other vendors,” Calabretta says. “We have in the past and continue to integrate other original equipment manufactured (OEM) packaging equipment into our systems.”
Dyco also has done more work in dairies with pallet conveyors. “It seems like most of the dairies that we do business with need to do both corrugated and plastic, which again gets into the issue of flexibility,” Snyder says, adding that demand for corrugated often stems from beyond the dairy industry. “A lot of the wholesale club stores are demanding corrugated for their warehousing and distribution systems. It is also a policy of some larger supermarkets.”
Dyco also introduced a new Python Spiral Accumulator last spring. According to sales manager Kevin John, the system is often used to handle empty containers for fluid milk. “It is used for accumulation in smaller spaces, and you can elevate or decline conveyors while using it – you can get 125 feet of accumulation in an 8-foot-by-8-foot space.” According to John, that type of conveyor is typically used by mid-size and large processing operations looking for a modular conveyor that is flexible enough to be easily relocated. In addition, he says, the Spiral Accumulator can be used after a blow mold or debagger as a surge bypass system, to keep a supply of bottles flowing when a filler is down or to supply bottles to the filler if the blow molder is not in operation.
Clean as You Go
As dairies invest in new conveyors to replace aging systems or to accommodate new product lines and throughput needs, they are also keeping a closer eye on sanitation features. With standards for 3-A plants becoming more stringent and as operators adhere to formal HACCP programs and good management practices, conveyors and conveyor belting are subject to more frequent cleaning, sanitizing and inspection. “We constantly look for opportunities to make conveyors easy to clean and to prevent bacteria from forming,” Calabretta says.
Sickman, too, says modern conveyor design must also take into account the need to be able to more easily clean and sanitize the machine. “There is an ever-growing concern about keeping things clean in dairies,” he says, citing other sanitation-driven features of the company’s line of conveyors. “For a number of years, we have been offering an open-style conveyor so you can clean it more easily.”
Sanitation is a priority issue for Delkor as well, with easier-to-clean features built into its systems used for package handling and pallet handling. “Cleanability isn’t just specific to dairy, but with dairy you have a very robust system where you have motors and drives protected,” Fox says. “You need to be able to wash down equipment and wash it down well.”
Washdown and the use of sanitizers also lead to the question of maintenance. As dairies use stronger cleansers and washdown conveyors more in a cold environment, they also gauge the effects on equipment like conveyors and belting systems. “The constant presence of water is hard on anything, and the conveyor will deteriorate sooner if it is in a harsh washdown environment. Even stainless steel will begin to wear,” Calabretta says.
Proper maintenance helps ensure that the greatest life span can be achieved in a piece of equipment like a conveyor and conveyor belting system. “I think the most important things are that chains are replaced when necessary, that lubrication gets done and that wear liners be replaced, because those things are commonly let go,” Calabretta says, adding that regular inspections are also pivotal.
Along with parts and maintenance programs, conveyor and belting system suppliers typically provide training programs. Most manufacturers also warranty their products for a certain period of time.
As for the future of conveyors, equipment providers are continuing their new product development work utilizing the latest technology. “We are developing vision systems to check the quality of containers and see application for that in dairies. We are also doing our first robotic palletizing system right now,” Snyder says. “I think, in the future, it will continue to be about automation, flexibility and speed.”  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.