By Lisa White
Today’s conveyor systems and belts are designed for increased durability, quick maintenance and easier cleaning.
Conveyor systems and belts have undergone an evolution over the years, as the demands placed on these vital pieces of equipment increased, causing the alteration of the category.
Nowadays, conveyors are not relegated to moving product through the plant and production line, but they have developed into a vital link in the food-safety chain.
In response, manufacturers of conveyor systems and conveyor belts are introducing updated designs, new materials and improved sanitation features to better accommodate meat processors’ needs.
Consequently, today’s conveyor belts aim to maximize throughput while minimizing down time, maintenance and cleaning costs.
Newer plastics and welding processes have resulted in a number of benefits in the conveyor system and belting industry. “When plastics were introduced about 10 years ago, the benefit was food doesn’t stick on the belt. However, you can’t cook on plastic, and this material is not as stiff as stainless steel. For this reason, wide plastic belts need additional support underneath,” says Jonathan Lasecki, engineering manager at Winchester, Va.-based Ashworth Bros., Inc.
Ashworth has unveiled two new products that address the need for durability and maintaining product temperatures. According to Lasecki, the Advantage line of hybrid spiral and turn curve conveyor belts features a hygienic design that helps stop the spread of disease-causing bacteria in food-processing applications.
In addition, Ashworth’s Omni-Pro all-metal spiral belt offers a 400-pound tension rating in spiral or turn curve applications that is easily cleaned, says Lasecki. A patent-pending link design helps strengthen the belt, while extending its service life. The new link features an extended outside leg that positions the rod-to-link weld so that it is in a protected position. This prevents the weld from coming in contact with spiral cage bars or the belt support system, so that the cage bar caps last longer and provides smoother operation.
The new link is also designed to more fully support the weld, Lasecki says, so that there is less tension on the weld compared to more traditional designs. This feature reduces the possibility of weld, and ultimately belt, failure.
Also designed for spiral cage applications, Cambridge International’s DuraLite belting is lighter, stronger than traditional metal belts and food safe, says Rebecca Eismann, marketing communications manager at the Cambridge, Md.-based company. “One trend we see in this segment is lighter-weight materials because this causes less wear on equipment,” she says.
Debris caused by friction between the equipment and belt also is a concern that manufacturers are addressing. “DuraLite reduces the potential for debris because there is less material,” Eismann says. “The spiral cage components are made of plastic, and with DuraLite belting, there is less wear of those components.”
Product release also is an issue with belting, and companies are developing coatings and materials to assist in this. According to Bill Hornsby, director of marketing for Habasit Belting in Suwanee, Ga., the company’s Cleanline belts have a proprietary top material that improves chemical and stain resistance and also is designed for easy release of raw products. “Plastic modular belting is quickly becoming the standard for the food-processing industry. These belts can be easily replaced, with little or no downtime,” says Hornsby.
Because the conveyor system industry is moving away from customization and toward more affordable solutions, Shuttleworth, in Huntington, Ind., developed a way to eliminate the custom aspect of its products, according to Todd Eckert, business development manager. “From an affordability standpoint, the industry is driving us to standardize our lines,” he says.
Consequently, the company’s product standards and specifications were made uniform and templates were created for conveyor lengths and widths. “We took the middlemen, the salesmen and engineer, out of the picture,” Eckert explains.
This new solution has shortened lead times at Shuttleworth to two weeks or less. “There are no design or material changes, just the process. This new procedure is designated for companies that integrate our systems into their machines and sell to the end user,” Eckert says.
Because more than 85 percent of its Flat-Flex belt breaks occur at or near the splice joint, Wire Belt Co., a Londonderry, N.H., manufacturer of custom, stainless-steel wire conveyor belts and conveying solutions, recently unveiled the EZSplice System. This belt splicing system helps extend the strength and life of Wire Belt’s Flat-Flex open-mesh stainless-steel belt and the company’s patented C-CureEdge belting.
EZSplice provides pre-formed, custom-shaped wire strands, making the spliced joint the strongest, rather than weakest, point on the belt, says Rick Spiak, vice president of sales and marketing. The strand is designed for each belt variant, which allows the user to make quick repairs on any mesh. “This product is designed to make belts easier to put together on the conveyor,” he says.
Wire Belt also has introduced C-CureEdge, an open-mesh, stainless-steel wire belting designed to increase productivity and enhance safety, says Spiak. Its closed-loop ends offer faster installation and repair time, while minimizing the risk of accidents caused by sharp open ends. The belts also are open mesh, for maximum air flow and easy cleaning.
The patented design’s flexibility enhances belt life by decreasing individual strand stress on the outside edge of the belt and diminishing conveyor damage caused by loop end irregularities.
Wire Belt’s third product launch, the CompactGrid Conveyor Belt, is designed to handle smaller, more delicate products, while providing a lighter weight, lower mass, open-mesh belt design for high-speed cooling and drying applications.
Engineered with 70 percent open surface area, CompactGrid is designed for processes in which product coating, drainage and liquid or air circulation are factors. The open stainless-steel design is engineered for cooking operations such as frying and baking, as well as for cooling freshly baked or freshly fried products in high-volume, high-throughput processes.
According to Andy Quist, marketing coordinator at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Mol Industries, modular belts have generally replaced flat belting due to durability and downtime issues. “With flat belts, you would have to keep taking them off to stretch and track them. The belts would often break, fray or delaminate and get ripped up,” he says. “Positive drive sprocket-driven belts eliminated these headaches, except when the hinges and pins broke and needed replacement. This not only caused downtime, but there was an issue of hinges and pins getting into the food. The design also created places where bacteria built up, so the belts were hard to clean.”
As an alternative to modular belting, Mol Industries introduced its ThermoDrive plastic conveyor belting. ThermoDrive belts are positive drive and run on existing modular conveyors. They also do not require any pre-tension and will not stretch.
One development in the packaging sector is from Intralox in Harahan, La., which recently launched angled roller belts, or ARBs, for packaging lines. “This allows processors to position packages, turn corners, merge two lines into one and singulate with multiple packages automatically,” says Clint Favre, North American team leader for meat, poultry and seafood.
Sanitation is one of the hot issues in the conveyor system and belting industry where food processing is a factor. The controversy stems from the cleaning advantages and disadvantages of plastic versus stainless steel.
“With plastic belts, processors are concerned with biofilm or buildup. This is not an issue with stainless-steel belting, which is easy to clean and sanitize,” Eismann says. “Also, stainless steel doesn’t nick, like plastic, [creating areas that can harbor bacteria].”
Kerry Smith, product manager at Ashworth Bros., says conveyor belting should be easy to clean with high-pressure water and chemicals. However, it is important to note that not all cleaning solutions are compatible with all belting materials. “Chemicals can degrade belts, especially those that are plastic or hybrids,” he says. Also, modular plastic belts can hide bacteria and are more difficult to clean. Open designs, like the company’s Advantage line, can provide easy access to all surfaces for better sanitation and cleaning.
Favre at Intralox agrees that, where cleaning and sanitation are concerned, the more accessible the surfaces are on the system or belt, the better. “Our 850 Series belt is a 36-inch-wide, one-piece molded module that has minimal hinges,” Favre says. “The idea is that product debris cannot hide, and sanitation is easier and quicker.”
In addition, Intralox’s angle sprockets are rotated at a 30-degree angle, providing 100 percent coverage to the belt’s underside. “Our Clean-In-Place system (CIP) features a spray bar and headers strategically placed in the conveyor to maximize belt sanitation,” Favre says. “This reduces the amount of water, time and labor needed to clean the belts from between 40 to 80 percent. We put in 200 CIPs at a major Midwest processing plant, and they reduced water consumption by 100,000 gallons a day on average.”
Along with open designs, belts with seamless, niche-free surfaces are beneficial from a sanitation standpoint. For example, Mol Industries’ thermoplastic belt features solid and homogeneous construction, with no hinges or pins, minimizing the chance of bacterial ingression. “Sanitation, maintenance and production are the main issues with belting. We tested our ThermoDrive line and found our micro counts are lower than with other modular belts,” Quist says.
Contamination from conveyor components parts also can be an issue. Spiak says metal contamination is more detectable than plastic, which requires X-rays and visual inspection. “Wire Belt’s CompactGrid replaces modular belts for metal detection,” he says. “Our line can be cleaned in place, without removal from the conveyor or the use of special equipment. One of our customers told us it takes a third of the time to clean compared to the modular belt it replaced.”
Habasit Belting has focused on adding cleaning systems for its plastic modular belting material. According to Hornsby, MODUCLEAN is an inside-out cleaning system that can be
adapted to fit most conveyor systems. Water and cleaning agents are directed where needed, reducing water usage and wastewater processing. In addition, positive tooth engagement and precision nozzles aim cleaning solution directly at the hinge area as it opens.
Also focusing on sanitation, Shuttleworth offers anti-microbial roller material, which inhibits bacteria growth, says Eckert.
What the future holds
Manufacturers predict new technology and materials will play a big part in the future of this segment. “Plastics will play a big part in the future of conveyor systems,” says Smith, adding that new manufacturing processes will occur on both the material and manufacturing side.
Eckert agrees, saying automation is continuing to open up new opportunities. “It is tricky at times, because our equipment has to interface with other manufacturers’ equipment. But more integration is on the [horizon]. We have to work with others to integrate our systems properly and grow our knowledge of their equipment,” he ays.
Because processors are looking for cleaner and faster equipment, this is constantly pushing manufacturers of conveyor systems to develop new technologies, says Ecker.
People also are trying to do more with less, says Eismann. “The future will see products that run longer, require less maintenance and maximize processors’ return on investment. Everyone wants increased efficiency and reduced downtime. It’s our job to help them achieve that,” she says.
Lisa White is a freelance writer based in Chicagoland