Problem – High volume processing facilities are designed around inputs that are pre-conditioned to maximize yield at minimum processing cost. When those facilities are asked to produce minimally, or less processed product meeting consumer expectations for clean labels or organic, systems and equipment often require adaptation.
An Ohio based processor of Asian entrees and appetizers were commissioning the mechanization of a whole muscle-chicken nugget line. This involved replacing workers tossing marinated cut chicken in a highly customized breading mix with a mechanical breader. Essentially a rotating drum with vanes on the inside, cocked at an angle to facilitate movement of nuggets through the breading material and out the lower end.
While the custom breading adhered nicely to the chicken, it fouled the mechanism that recirculated loose powder that didn’t stick to the chicken from the bottom of the drum, back to be used. Costing over $1.25 per pound, the loss was significant, and resulted in the mechanization actually costing more, and yielding less than the manual process due to downtime.
One of the senior supervisors, who had come up the ranks from the days when the company was a single restaurant kitchen, suspected the fouling was the result of the special starches used in the blend. He asked for several versions of the breading mix with progressively less expensive specialized material.
Four versions of the simpler breading material indicated the suspicion was correct. Despite the equipment manufacturers’ recommendation to use the complex breading, the plant succeeded best when using a simple all purpose wheat flour. That reduced the material cost for breading by 60 percent, with a 30 percent increase in throughput. As a side benefit, three ingredients, (that didn’t sound like anything grandma used) came off the label. Twelve years later, that product is still succeeding for a variety of retailers.
Simplicity bore results that were dramatic, while exploiting the strengths of the equipment.
Scope of problem
At the other end of the minimal processing spectrum, there are minimally processed ingredients whose functional behavior requires advance preparation. Organic sugar going into high volume operations is an example. Producing sugar organically requires the material be processed minimally. The processes and components used to enable free flowing do not fit into certified organic production. Organic sugar produced in the tropics, then used in the Northern Hemisphere is subject to long ocean voyage going through temperature and humidity changes that can lead to hardening. We’ve all had that bag of, usually brown, sugar go hard in the cupboard.
Food processors use ‘small’ bags of 25 kg or 50 lb sugar in their mixes. The larger users employ super sacks or big bags of 1,000 to 1,200 kg in their facilities. Bags are hoisted above a dump station, the bottom of the bags and inner liners have fabric or plastic ties that are then removed, allowing sugar to flow into production.
Hardened sugar creates a wide variety of problems for these beverage, confection, fruit processing and bakery applications. To release hard sugar into equipment, workers pound on the side of bags, use stainless steel rods to reach in the bottom of bags, and basically do anything they can to get material to unbridge. The resulting production delays affect throughput. Having workers smack bags with everything from rods to bats is a safety issue. Even small bags sufficiently hardened result in higher cost, lower yield production.
"Simplicity bore results that were dramatic, while exploiting the strengths of the equipment"
Producers coming out of the historic natural food trade have recognized this product feature. For the most part, their operations have some step to break up clumps or prepare material for insertion into production. Larger, usually conventional consumer product manufacturers, on the other hand, are often shocked at the disruption a bit of hard sugar can create. With higher speed equipment, there are closer tolerances, and less room for variability in the production schedule. Despite the tendency to clump being an inherent part of the sugar, they consider its lack of free flow nonconformity. It is not.
Bag conditioning systems are readily available to break up large clumps that prevent product from evacuating the big bag. The bags are squeezed by hydraulic rams and rotated to allow sugar to fall. A variety of declumping machines are available to completely granularize the sugar. The resulting material flow can move easily through mechanical or pneumatic processing systems without negative impact.
Use of the right equipment to allow product flow supports a reliable production schedule, improved worker safety and normal production. In dealing with production concerns arising from use of natural inputs, one is often challenged to prepare material using mechanical and thermal means to achieve speeds and volumes more highly processed inputs allow.
At the end of the day, the consumer wants foods made with fewer chemicals. Delivering on that promise requires thoughtful observation and creativity.