Belting it Out
by Lynn Petrak

Conveyors and belting systems built for product and performance help processors with material handling.
While some automated systems are considered the heart or brain of production, conveyors can be considered the veins and arteries that move ingredients, packages and finished product throughout a facility.
As dairy operations — whether they are devoted to fluid milk, cheese, ice cream, cultured products or dry ingredients — become increasingly sophisticated, continuous and automated, belting and conveyors are the conduits that allow for the reduction of labor and more streamlined way of getting things from point A to point B (or, for that matter, to points C, D or E.)
With an increasing role in product handling, packaging, palletizing and other functions, belting and conveyors have become a focus of investment for processors who want to keep their lines rolling along at the pace of business. In turn, material and equipment suppliers are working on systems designed to meet their customers’ changing and often specific needs, whether they are using floor, case handling, overhead, cable, package, palletizing, tabletop models or other types of systems.
Need for Speed
As volume and throughput remain key drivers in manufacturing, it’s not surprising that speed influences conveyor design. “We’re seeing an increased emphasis on speed, with some people running in excess of 300 bottles a minute,” reports Paul Calabretta, new business development for Dairy Conveyor Corp., a Brewster, N.Y.-based company specializing in the design, engineering, manufacturing, installation and service of conveyor systems for food industries.
Swiftness is a trend also noted by Brian Benson, vice president of sales for dairy for Rosemount, Minn.-based Cannon Equipment, which provides automated solutions, including conveyors, for food and beverage processing. “Speed is an issue. A lot of people are talking about continuous speed,” he says.
Likewise, Arlen Johnson, regional sales manager for Nol-Tec Systems Inc., a Lino Lakes, Minn.-based industrial automation and pneumatic conveying company specializing in bulk material handling and system integration, has fielded similar requests from dairy processors related to speed. “Speed is always a concern. They want to be able to do a certain rate today with the understanding that the rate can double later. They want a certain amount of that design built into it as much as possible,” he says. “Everyone is looking to maximize their output.”
The flexibility that Johnson alludes to is also evident in the growing number of processors who use adjustable speeds on their conveyors. “People are looking at variable speeds,” Benson says. “If they want to slow it down or adjust the speed to match the input or output they can without changing sprockets.”
Having variable speeds for conveyors also allows processors to help contain energy costs. “We are selling more high-efficiency motors, and we are also seeing an increase in the number of customers who want motor control systems to run systems more efficiently,” Calabretta says.
New Products, New Uses
In addition to upping speed, dairy manufacturers are also using conveyors for new products and in new places within their plants.
Calabretta, for instance, cites the continuing move toward smaller bottles of milk and dairy-based drinks. “There is an increasing proliferation of small, round bottles, which means an increased use of vacuum conveyors,” he says. “We also are selling more side-gripping elevators and lowerators because the small bottle is more unstable.”
The fact that dairies are expanding their product lines and types of packages has also led to features that can be tweaked. Benson cites the growing use of adjustable rails as an example. “Depending on the product, if you run multiple products, the rail has to be adjustable so the items don’t have to go around each other on the conveyor,” he explains.
Meantime, as the market for ingredients like whey and milk powder has continued to grow internationally, dry dairy ingredients processors are updating their equipment, including conveyor systems. Nol-Tec provides pneumatic conveying systems for such applications. “It’s all a contained system, a dust-free, low-maintenance system that eases labor and helps reduce possible injuries,” Johnson says of the company’s Dense Phase and Dilute Phase conveying systems.
Even as high-speed, high-capacity conveying systems reflect many trends in the dairy industry, Johnson reports that there is strong interest in Nol-Tec’s Mini Jet as well. “It’s a small, inexpensive system to install and run and we do a lot with it in cheese plants,” he says. “It is cost effective for capital expenditures as well as operating costs.”
Further down the line in a plant, there are new ways in which conveyors are being used in packaging and palletizing. “I think the most significant trend right now is organic milk – we are selling more conveyors for corrugated and cardboard boxes,” Calabretta says. “Instead of product going into a dairy case, we continue to see more and more going to boxes, and organic is driving that, along with ESL half-gallon cartons.”
That evolution can be wider in scope, Calabretta predicts. “Not only that, but we are seeing dairies pushing to get out of milk cases wherever they can because they are costing them a ton of money,” he observes.
Where conveyors come into that picture, he adds, is the switch to robotic palletizers. “Since boxes are usually three or six half gallons to a box, they want to be able to robotically palletize them because it can be a very labor intensive process,” he says.
Tailor Made
Given the fact that product diversity and manufacturing realities require processors to be more flexible than ever, belt conveyors are increasingly engineered for a manufacturer’s unique set of circumstances.
That is certainly the case at Cannon Equipment, Benson says. “The bottom line is that we basically build the customer a product they nee,” he says. “We are not saying, ‘We only offer a certain type of conveyor.’ We try to match the customer’s needs to what they want to do, whether it’s accumulation nor carry through.”
At Nol-Tec, Johnson says that what the company offer to its customers isn’t so much a certain model but a solution. ”We design equipment specifically for the application, so we are constantly changing and updating. It almost has to be a custom system, because every application is different,” he says, noting that while components are standard, the overall systems vary from plant to plant.
Material for Material Handling
As with other types of equipment used in automated systems in dairy facilities, belting and conveyors are increasingly designed for sanitation as well. For example, stainless-steel construction is on the wish list for many manufacturers.
“Everyone wants stainless,” Benson says, adding that even as the cost of stainless steel is rising, the ROI is still attractive. “Stainless wipes off when you clean it and it is cheaper in the long run because you don’t have to do maintenance or upkeep like other equipment. Also, many years down the road a steel painted system looks older, while stainless always looks nice.” Getting the right type of stainless — “not low-grade stainless than can rust” — is an important consideration, he adds.
Compared to previous years, the latest belts are created to be quick and easily sanitized. For instance, Volta Belting Technology Ltd., a Dallas-based supplier of homogenous conveyor belts, has improved the sanitation features of its belting systems, including its SuperDrive®, which features a smoother surface to prevent bacteria growth that might otherwise occur in crevices and easy-to-clean “teeth” that mesh with the teeth on the drive pulley.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.