Conveyors and palletizers in dairy processing facilities are literally on the move. With the technologies playing a key role in plant efficiency and product quality, equipment manufacturers are focusing on developing faster and more durable and reliable systems. That includes increasingly quicker and stronger conveyors and palletizers that leverage robotics to help streamline operating expenses.

Newer designs also are better able to support the processing of materials that have different configurations, says Jim Paulsen, sales account manager for Winneconne, Wis.-based supplier Multi-Conveyor LLC.

"This may include recipe-driven systems that change the speeds of conveyors or provide automatic adjustment of product guides or pneumatic devices to accept the variances in product sizes, shapes and weights," he says. "These quick automatic changeovers raise not only conveyor efficiencies, but result in improved line efficiencies as the various equipment operations have more uptime."

Conveyor manufacturers also are responding to greater processor interest in sanitation by incorporating elements such as clean-in-place designs featuring automated washing systems, which enable processors to clean machinery without taking the conveyors apart. This results in less production downtime and labor use while helping to save on water and energy, says Sid Butler, president of Knightstown, Ind.-based Hoosier Conveyor Co. In addition, newer conveyors have fewer horizontal surfaces to reduce standing water, a breeding group for harmful bacteria, he notes.

Processors, including those that have no immediate plans to clean the equipment with high-powered water, also are installing more durable wash-down-rated machinery in lieu of wipe-down devices, says Rich Arnold, vice president of sales for Covington, Ky.-based ProMach Inc.'s Benchmark and Kleenline conveyor brands. Wash-down equipment typically contains components that are designed to better withstand higher-water-pressure cleanings or chemicals.

"It adds another level of safety if spills or contamination were to occur," he states.

Yet Arnold says cost is a key obstacle to the widespread adoption of features that can enhance sanitation and safety.

"Sanitary elements such as stainless steel cost more and can be more expensive to work with," he says. "Add in the need for precision welding to eliminate hot zones for bacteria, and costs escalate. Simply upgrading a non-hygienic system design to meet sanitary standards also can be more expensive than starting from scratch, so it’s important to partner with suppliers that have the necessary know-how and experience in the area."


Track the technologies

Keeping tabs on the most effective machinery is important, as conveyors and palletizers are constantly evolving, says Yan Gagné, sales manager, nutrition market sector for Premier Tech Systems and Automation, a Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec-based conveyor and palletizer supplier.

"This technology evolution is resulting in energy savings, improvements in uptime and higher processor output rates," he states.

Palletizer manufacturers, for instance, are developing equipment that can more easily support the wider range of package sizes and configurations, says Bryan Sinicrope, vice president of sales and marketing for A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp., a Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based palletizer developer.

"Processors need equipment that can handle product line changes and different conveyor speeds without incurring greater capital expenses," he says.

Indeed, conventional palletizers are becoming more flexible, with manufacturers offering models for many speeds and budgets, Sinicrope says. Most processors had been using conventional palletizers for higher-speed and dedicated lines, while earmarking robotic palletizers for lower-speed lines and mixed-load pallets, he notes.

Robotic solutions, meanwhile, can include hybrids that combine a robotic arm with conventional layer placement, he says.

"There will be more than one automation solution for many dairies, and they need to evaluate each to determine the system that will best reach their short- and long-term needs," Sinicrope says.

In selecting the most appropriate technologies, dairy processors should consider such factors as speed, pallet patterns and the need for slip sheets, tier sheets and corner posts, says Dan Altman, vice president of sales and marketing for Delkor Systems Inc., a St. Paul, Minn.-based supplier of palletizers and conveyors.

"The beauty of a robot is it can handle multiple lines simultaneously, so you do not need a single palletizer at the end of every line," Altman says. "However, the speed of each of those lines that will feed the robotic palletizer must be analyzed to ensure the robot has enough time to complete the task of building all the products."

The robot, in many instances, will handle the slip sheets (the corrugated or paperboard board on the bottom of the load which sits on the pallet), tier sheets (corrugated or paperboard that is put in between various layers of the pallet), top sheets (the board on the top of the pallet) and corner posts (which enhance pallet stability and provide corner protection for items with fragile or sharp edges). However, such measures can slow processing speeds, as robots cannot support multiple tasks simultaneously, Altman says. Nevertheless, the use of robotics is resulting in lower system failure rates.

"Downtime simply cannot happen, and that translates into higher-efficiency and lower-cost-per-hour systems," he states.


Less need for labor

Robotics, meanwhile, also is proving to be a panacea for operators struggling to hire workers for lower-end jobs such as palletizing boxes, or for plants that are unable to find enough persons willing to work the night shifts or engage in injury-prone repetitive motion activities, Altman says.

In addition, robotics help strengthen return on investment because of the reduction in worker injuries and subsequent compensation claims, he states. Because a single robotic palletizer can support multiple processing lines, machinery will require less operating personnel and floor space.

Indeed, because many facilities lack the space to support machine upgrades, robotic palletizers and other equipment with smaller footprints can help streamline operations, says Paul McKeown, corporate account manager, food industry team, at Intralox LLC USA, a New Orleans-based supplier of conveyor belting.

Robotics also is strengthening operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, as having fewer workers enables processors to more easily create social distancing in their facilities, says Erik Grinnel, vice president of automation for ProMach's Quest brand of robotic palletizers.

"Rather than having two workers standing side by side palletizing, plants can have just one person monitor a suite of robotic palletizers," he states.

A shortage of qualified personnel to operate conventional equipment also is helping to bolster the adoption of robotics, says Kristopher Stubblefield, regional sales manager for ProMach's Brenton brand of robotic palletizers.

"With the skilled mechanical people retiring, there are not many individuals left that understand the mechanics of traditional palletizers," he says, adding that more trade schools are focusing on programmable-logic-controller programming and robotics, "which is shifting the labor resource pool."


Forecast the future

Processors seeking to implement newer technologies or operating methodologies can better forecast performance by leveraging simulation systems that reveal the effects of possible conveyor mishaps on operations, says Ken Lento, senior business strategist, North American food segment, for FlexLink Systems Inc., an Allentown, Pa.-based manufacturer of conveyors and palletizers. That can include gaging the severity of production line backups if a machine goes down for 10 seconds or a minute.

"Simulations can enable processors to create fixes for potential problems before they even build a system," he says. "Companies are missing the boat if they aren't asking their conveyor supplier or engineering firm to perform the measures."

Technology purchasing decisions also should take into account the need to have equipment that can support future upgrades to line operations, Lento says, including a move to faster processing speeds. "Most dairy processing problems occur because operators are not treating conveyors as part of their processes," he states. "They underestimate the value of what the proper conveyor system can do."

It is very difficult to predict future demand and packaging changes during these increasingly uncertain times, adds McKeown.

“Building flexibility into lines to make them future-proof is more important than ever," he says.

Indeed, Altman says planning for upcoming activity will greatly help processors' decision-making. "Automatic palletizing is inevitable if plants, for instance, are seeking to expand production from one to three shifts, are worried about workers’ compensation claims or cannot get personnel to do the jobs," he states.

The optimal palletizing technology for dairy plants will vary in accordance with the processor's packaging materials, which could include crates, cases or shrink-wrap trays, as well as the speed at which the products are coming at the palletizer, Stubblefield says. He notes that options can include both conventional and robotic designs.

"There will be multiple automation solutions for many dairies, and processors need to evaluate each to determine the system that will best support their short- and long-term needs," Sinicrope adds.

When considering palletizing upgrades, processors should weigh all direct and indirect benefits in their return-on-investment calculations, Gagné says. Positives from going fully automatic can include more steady production rates, injury risk declines and opportunities to reorganize the floor space to achieve optimal workflows and overall equipment effectiveness.

Conveyors, meanwhile, will likely become more sophisticated over the next few years, too, Lento says. He notes that FlexLink is developing a system that is intended to enhance efficiencies by enabling products on side-by-side conveyors to move seamlessly between the lines on the fly via a belt that connects carriers.

"The market demand is for speed and intelligence to make systems better, easier, faster, smarter and more dynamic," he says.

For the best results, however, dairy processors should be realistic when sharing their production aims with potential technology suppliers, Paulsen says.

"The customer’s knowledge of their own current operations — and being able to communicate where they want to get to regarding line speeds, sanitation levels and product quality — allows suppliers to determine their best offerings to meet those goals," he states. “It is important, however, that dairy processors not overstate their aims or request equipment that far exceeds the actual system potential, which can drive up costs and result in loss of efficiencies. Functionality can be compromised by having equipment that tries to encompass everything on a wish list or is infinitely adjustable when it doesn’t need to be.”