What Goes Around Comes Around
By Sandy Parlin
Manufacturers of conveyors understand that if equipment isn’t easy to clean, processors won’t want to face the repercussions that poor sanitation can bring to their operation.

Nearly everyone remembers the classic scene in the TV series “I Love Lucy” where Lucy works on a conveyor that moves chocolate bonbons. When Lucy can’t keep up with the pace of the conveyor she frantically grabs chocolates off the line and stuffs them into her mouth and clothing to avoid being seen by her boss — it’s a classic, humorous television moment for many people. For companies that design systems, equipment or parts to help move products from one point to another, concealing problems is not an option.
“Food safety is our primary consumer concern,” says Clint Favre, account manager for Intralox, L.L.C.’s Meat, Poultry and Seafood Team. Located in Harahan, La., Intralox manufactures modular plastic conveyor belts.
Risk of contamination from pathogens drives meat and poultry processors to improve conveyor sanitation. The challenge for them is to achieve the highest hygienic standards possible while minimizing the expenses accrued by downtime, water usage and energy costs.
According to Favre, modular plastic belting was a major sanitation breakthrough when Intralox patented the technology more than 30 years ago. Recent belt features developed by the company include angled sprockets that facilitate 100 percent cleaning access to belt undersides, an automated EZ Clean in Place system that aids cleaning of interior components and minimum hinge design belts that expose greater rod area during cleaning. The company also features flat top belt surfaces of non-porous, non-absorbent plastic materials, flumes that rapidly channel water and debris to belt edge and a drive-bar-driven belt design that prevents sprockets from pressing debris into hinges.
“Our wet lab tests show that using a combination of Intralox EZ Clean solutions cleans more consistently than manual cleaning in up to 65 percent less time while reducing water usage by up to 65 percent,” Favre reports.
Processors that package meats in consumer-ready cases take away part of the supermarket butcher’s role, leading to a need for greater line flexibility to accommodate packaging sizes and styles based on meat cuts and volume, he adds. Older technologies like metal rollers cannot keep up with customer needs, Favre states. Intralox has an EZ Roller Retrofit™ system that replaces existing roller conveyors in 50 percent of the time and reduces costs by 85 percent. Raised surfaces on Intralox belts allow packages to overhang wearstrips, allowing processors to run multiple products on the same line without requiring time-consuming changeovers. Heavy-duty materials reduce belt wear and tear for even loads of heavy crates.
Cook King Inc, located in La Mirada, Calif., designs and manufactures custom conveyor systems of all types and styles, including conveyorized processing and pack-off tables, transfer conveyors, heating and cooling conveyors.
“Careful attention given to transfer points assures gentle transfer of product,” says Dick Naess, executive vice president. The new, patented Cook King NESTER™ conveyor increases belt load from 12 to 20 percent depending on the product size. The added production capability quickly returns the capital cost of the NESTER™ conveyor. Cook King’s conveyor systems use a variety of conveyor belt types including stainless steel, neoprene and plastic, and all-stainless steel frame construction allows for easy cleaning.
Ashworth Bros., Inc. of Winchester, Va., manufactures belts that serve primary and secondary processing of meat, poultry and fish, as well as freezing, cooking, product transfer and packaging operations. Ashworth two most recent belt designs represent major improvements in sanitation, maintenance and long service life: the Advantage and Omni-Pro™.
The Advantage line of hybrid belts combines steel rods with plastic surface modules. They have higher beam strength and can carry heavier loads without sagging in the middle and without adding support rails.
“Ashworth hybrid belts [Advantage] are the next evolutionary step in conveyor belting after modular plastic; they maintain all the benefits of plastic belting and, in fact, improve on the shortcomings of modular plastic while incorporating the strength of steel belts,” Kerry Smith, product manager, states.
The belts have the most open modular structure on the market (67 percent) and incorporate double-slotted links and modules that allow greater airflow than modular plastic belts in spiral systems and permit easier cleaning than modular plastic belts, which tend to be closed designs.
Compared to all-metal belts, Advantage belts are more easily repaired, as no welding is required. Common hand tools easily remove the steel rods of Advantage belts from the acetal links. No cutting and welding means less downtime, and the acetal surface modules offer improved product release in freezing applications.
The Omni-Pro™ utilizes new design techniques to boost belt strength and service life and minimize system wear. Its new, patent-pending protrusion-leg design prevents the belt welds from coming into contact with spiral cage bars, giving Omni-Pro belts a smoother run with less wear.
Ashworth creates a 360-degree, rod-to-link, “zero-tension” weld where the rod end is completely melted and fused into the link. This extends the belt’s service life by preventing weld failure and unexpected downtime. The design relieves tension in the weld, allowing for higher load-bearing capacity. The zero-tension weld also is smooth and free from surface imperfections and crevices, which eliminates the possibility of bacteria entrapment.
Habasit Belting LLC, of Suwanee, Ga., offers Cleanline® belts with proprietary top material that provide release of raw products, HabasitLINK® plastic modular belts, plastic belts for spirals, cooling lines, high-temperature applications and packaging. It also offers fabric lines, including TPU, PVC, HabaGUARD® and Cottonmate®, a non-woven replacement for cotton belts, says Bill Hornsby, director of marketing. Habasit offers hundreds of conveyor belts with a wide variety of tension members and cover materials as well as structural surface and running-side patterns.
Plastic modular belting quickly is becoming the standard for the food-processing industry. Plastic modulars can be replaced easily with little or no downtime. Plastic modular material offers antimicrobial benefits, which inhibit the growth of dangerous pathogens and are easy to clean with systems like the MODULCLEAN®, a patented inside-out cleaning system that adapts to fit most conveyor systems using existing cleaning solution. Habasit offers a comprehensive package to heighten hygiene and sanitation of processing conveyors, Hornsby reports.
Habasit’s patented oblong hole and open hinge improve access to the hinge rod across the entire width of the belt. The hinge design redirects water flow to further reduce sanitation time. The Smart Fit reusable rod was designed for easy removal when replacing plastic belt modules, requiring no tools or secondary parts.
“The key to achieving optimum belt performance is not only in selecting the most suitable material for the application, but more important is the custom fitting of the belt,” Hornsby says. Habasit ensures a custom fit by providing belt calculation software and technical and engineering design support. It offers product data sheets and brochures, belt surface selection guides, fabrication training on tools and materials, safety data sheets and unit converter tools.
NeXtconveyor Corp., located in Tampa, Fla., manufactures conveyors for the food industry. “Our NeXtgen® Ultra exceeds the [American Meat Institute’s ready-to-eat] specifications,” says president and sales engineer Dan Karpy. The conveyor offers sanitation-friendly features such as patented, open frame construction, no flat horizontal surfaces and the ability to be disassembled without tools. The design nearly eliminates the use of fasteners, which provides significant cost reduction through reduced labor, reduced chemical usage and reduced water consumption. Karpy agrees that the biggest issue in conveyors is sanitation, driven by manufactures’ recognition of conveyors as a critical factor in a sanitary production environment.
“In the past, conveyors tended to be a last thought item. Now, manufacturers are demanding they be as sanitary and cleanable as possible,” he notes.
Serving many different industries and applications, uni-chains Manufacturing, Inc., of Reading, Pa., specializes in modular plastic belts. “The demands for cleanability are very high in the meat industry. The challenge is to make a belt that is easily installed and cleaned,” says Tyson Gabler, project manager.
Often, Gabler explains, belts are soaked in cleaning solution overnight; other times they are sprayed off. The design of the belt determines if areas in the belt can harbor bacteria, and how easy or difficult it is to clean these areas.
Modular plastic belts have hinges that join the pieces together. Cleanable belts are designed to have these hinges as closed as possible when belts are running on the conveyor, so there are no gaps for bacteria to grow. But these small gaps are hard to clean, so they are designed to open for cleaning when the belt engages the sprockets at the drive and idle ends, he adds.
The most common belt in the meat industry at uni-chains is the MPB belt. Single Link™ belts are molded in full widths up to 24 inches, eliminating gaps between links, making it more hygienic. In addition, the belt is assembled with lockpins; single piece pins that can be removed easily from the side of the belt and reused. Also, the belt is recessed on the underside for cleanability; bottom surfaces are angled so that water does not collect, but rather, drains out in the return section.
The company also has released the first of new, pinless belts. Snaplink belts have fewer spare parts, fewer closed areas for bacteria to grow in food applications and easy assembly and disassembly. Without pins, there is a constant weight per square foot for check-weighing applications, and sideflexing belts can pull greater tension through curves because the load can be distributed more evenly through the edges of belt, Gabler says.
Shuttleworth Inc., of Huntington, Ind., offers a Slip-Torque™ design that can handle products without causing damage. As products stop on the conveyor, the drive maintains power but the rollers directly under the product stop turning. Other conveyor types could generate scuffing or damage from line pressure created from the positive drive surfaces. The company uses more than 60 different types of plastic materials, and has a full-time plastics scientist on staff that drives our material research and testing, relays Todd Eckert, director of marketing.
Shuttleworth combines its Easy Clean™ design with its automation and devices technology to provide solutions for handling food products in the packaging industry. This design allows cleaning equipment in place with high-pressure washing. The smooth surfaces of the side frame are also ideal for a wipedown application.
Wire Belt Company of America, in Londonderry, N.H., makes conveyors and belting with open mesh stainless steel wire conveyor belt.
“We also manufacture specialty conveyors for the majority of the food-processing industry, especially poultry,” says Rick Spiak, vice president of sales and marketing. Although food safety is critical in the food-processing industry, Spiak adds that allergens are becoming an important specific issue within the realm of food safety.
“If you process peanuts on the equipment one day and you don’t properly clean and sanitize the machine, you could be in trouble if someone gets sick,” he points out. “Recalls cause damage to the brand name.”
Spiak points out that stainless steel has its advantages over plastic conveyor belts, which can provide places for pathogens and allergens to hide, since they have hinge pins, link barrels and connecting rods that often are partially or fully hidden and hard to clean.
“You can’t clean what you can’t see,” Spiak adds. “We make everything out of stainless steel and the majority of our products are USDA-approved.”
Wire Belt’s specialties include product orientation, product placement on a multitude of conveyors. The Compact Grid conveyor belt can handle smaller, more delicate products while providing a lighter weight, lower mass open-mesh belt design for high-speed cooling and drying operations. The lighter weight and lower mass along with an open-mesh framework improve energy efficiency. Engineered with a 70 percent open surface area, the belt suits processes in which product coating, drainage and liquid or air circulation are factors. Its open stainless-steel design improves cooking operations, such as frying and baking, and cooling freshly baked or fried products in high-volume, high-throughput processes. The increased open area makes it easier to clean and maintain, says Spiak.
As to the future, he expects conveyors to become easier to clean and maintain and offer more flexibility. He foresees a piece of equipment that will perform multiple functions.
“People look to avoid buying and maintaining more equipment. They need equipment that can do more than one thing,” Spiak concludes. NP
Sandy  Parlin is a freelance writer based in Chicago.