Weigh to Go

by Lynn Petrak, special-projects editor

Weighing systems — from in-line to checkweigher machines — get down to the matter.

The scope of the meat and poultry industry is one thing, but the scale is an entirely other matter.
How fresh, frozen and packaged proteins are weighed, even to the smallest measurement, makes a ton of difference, at least in the figurative sense. Processors and retailers running businesses on already shrinking margins want to be as accurate as possible. The growing number of those processors getting into case-ready fresh meats need to meet that fixed or a net weight or they lose the difference. Weight also affects pricing, and in these economic circumstances, pennies truly make a difference for those who sell and buy meat products.
As product lines diversify, many protein companies now produce variable-weight products such as traditional primals and subprimals to logs and loaves of deli meat, as well as pre-portioned, pre-packaged fixed-weight items. These operators, and others that may concentrate on certain types of offerings, rely on weighing systems that can handle the load at several points in the chain.
“A” for accuracy
Accuracy, of course, is the key attribute associated with weighing systems. Weighing systems used at various points in the meat chain are centered, first and foremost, on correct information.
“Accuracy has been improved on all machines, and basically, it’s because these are people’s cash registers,” says Chuck Saje, special projects manager for Bizerba USA Inc., a Piscataway, N.J.-based division of Bizerba Gmbh, a producer of labelers, indicators, scales and slicers. In the past decade, Saje says, there have been enhancements to in motion weighing, to the point where users no longer have to rely on averaging weight samples to arrive at a final weight statement but can calculate more accurate measurements of a product in motion across a scale due to the advent and merger of both new scale and software technology. All scales used for commerce in this country must be certified to a government standard of accuracy, he notes.
In addition to in-line weighing systems, checkweighers are more precise. Paul Thronson, product manager for checkweighers for Thermo Fisher Scientific, Minneapolis, Minn., says the checks and balances made throughout the process do make a difference.
“You can show that in any production batch, you have a record that all of the products that went through that batch were weighed and recorded, so you can prove compliance with weights and measures,” he says.
Speeding tickets
As the need for speed continues to ramp up in many plants that handle high volumes, processors look for weighing equipment that is accurate but won’t slow the flow.
Many suppliers have developed systems that enhance automation and can handle heavy traffic.
For example, PPM Technologies, a Newberg, Ore.-based packaging and processing supplier, offers a Libra™ Weigh System created to deliver a controllable flow of bulk material on a mass basis. Using electromagnetic technology, the vibratory conveyor on load cells controls flow rate by mass into a process system. Beyond improving efficiency, the system cuts down on time aligning and separating the product prior to a certain process.
“The measured flow rate can also offer feedback data to other components of a customer’s system,” adds Eric Doern, product line manager.
Another new weighing system comes from Baader-Johnson, a Kansas City, Kan., manufacturer that provides a range of machinery for poultry processing, including scales. Recently, the company became the exclusive distributor for Cabinplant, a Danish company that developed a system designed to weigh fresh meat using a multi-headed radial scale. According to Gehrig Chandler, corporate accounts manager, fresh products are automatically pulled to weigh pans to gauge net weights.
“It automatically deposits batches and reduces giveaway,” he explains.
Downstream, checkweighers also reflect today’s dual demands for accuracy and speed, explains Janet Chandler, sales manager, fresh food, for OCS Checkweighers Inc., an international supplier of weighing technology and checkweighers with U.S. offices in Snellville, Ga.
“With the growth of exact weight, a key issue we see is keeping processors’ inventories to certain limits so they have more control. That’s why you need to be even more accurate as you go out the door,” she says. To help processors and food manufacturers get to that minute accuracy, the new OCS HC-WD Checkweigher uses electromagnetic force, based on certain components that give you accuracy and speed, Chandler adds.
Achieving accuracy isn’t always an easy feat in meat and poultry plants, with typical harsh conditions. Chandler says that the HC-WD from OCS Checkweighers is designed for robust environments and is able to withstand frequent washdowns. Thronson points out that sensitive checkweighers must come in washdown versions that come into contact with detergents and water on a regular basis.
Other weighing systems have been created to address such environmental challenges, too.  Gainco Inc., a Gainesville, Ga., developer of automated weighing solutions, recently developed a new programmable weight indicator called the Infiniti™, created to thrive in temperature extremes and withstand hot chemical treatments and high-pressure washdowns.
Mod squad
As with other types of equipment used in the plant floor, the latest weighing systems are designed to be interchangeable. Modular designs and quick changeover features are part of the spec sheets of many recently introduced weighing systems. OCS Checkweighers addresses the less-is-more trend with a new dual lane machine.
“Because the plant floor cost is very important, the dual lane machine helps save not only cost but keeps floor space open,” says Chandler.
Meanwhile, versatility was a driver for a new checkweigher system from Gainco. Last year, Gainco introduced a checkweigher model that provides high-speed, accurate weighing of both bagged and boxed meat products. In addition, to boost accuracy and save labor, the weigher can be programmed with pre-set “accept” or “reject” specifications.
Integration is reflected in checkweighers with other kinds of functional features. Thermo Fisher Scientific, for instance, offers checkweighers with a built-in metal-detection system.
“Part of product inspection is checkweighing, and part of it is metal detection,” explains Thronson. Integration is an example of how weighing machines, as with other equipment, is designed to be more operator-friendly, he adds.
“The changes we’ve put into machines are involved with making them easier to use — making it simpler for an operator to interface with a machine to be able to enter and store product attributes,” he says. “Customers have come to us and said, ‘Give us machines that are easier to use.’”
Greater levels of customization are also indicative of processors’ interest in simplicity and interchangeability. Many scales can be tailored to meet a particular application requirement, from wet applications to heavy loads to light parts. Customization also can apply to integration with other machinery for total processing solutions.
Support system
With accuracy on the line, processors turn to weighing system experts to not only provide them with equipment but help ensure its smooth operation.
According to Gehrig Chandler at Baader-Johnson, making troubleshooters available is increasingly important in today’s operating environment.
“For our belt weighers, we are getting more customers who want us to have access to machines for service and want to store all of their data,” he says, adding that the company offers free online support for the first year of service.
Janet Chandler at OCS reports similar requests for data collection among her company’s users.
“They want to see what’s going on in the plant and they want to be proactive,” she says.
At Bizerba, Saje says that the supplier’s service department, in addition to traditional on-site technical support offers “E-service,” a software system that communicates directly with Bizerba equipment through a secure Ethernet connection. According to Saje, this type of support, when used in conjunction with a company’s own on-site technician, helps a processors lower downtime.
“From any remote location that has Internet access, Bizerba techs can actually pull up the screen of a machine, and it comes up as if our person was the operator,” he says. “That has saved travel time and costs on both ends.”