As computer technology expands equipment capabilities, bulk handling ingredient systems are becoming more cost effective. Manufacturers are using bulk systems to reduce costs, prevent contamination, speed up production and eliminate common workers compensation issues.
The definition of bulk ingredient handling systems can be as wide ranging as there are equipment manufacturers. Some companies offer silos that hold large shipments of dry ingredients, other systems handle ingredients from the truck to the mixer, even allowing for the integration of liquids, the isolation of allergens and the tracing of ingredients and batch information. Other machines focus on sanitary packaging and transporting of ingredients, or help employees unload bulk bags safely.
Bulk bags are typically used when manufacturers are not using enough of an ingredient to justify a complete bulk system with silos. “It does speed up the process to bring up a large 2,000-lb. bag of flour, like a white wheat flour. If you’re not using enough to justify a bulk system then you can bring it up in bulk bags and deliver it to the mixer out of a bulk bag unloader,” says Edward Brackman, vice president, sales, Fred D. Pfening Co., Columbus, Ohio.
The bottom line is manufacturers can find a handling system to fit their individual requirements, whether they need major bulk systems or bulk handling solutions for a smaller operation.
| Shick USA’s automated minor ingredient systems feed scales. |
| Contemar’s hopper with boom receives bulk ingredients. |
Cost savings is the biggest reason manufacturers opt for bulk handlingsystems, says Tom Friedrich, president, Contemar Silo Systems Inc., Concord, Ontario. The price of raw materials, such as flour, is cheaper when purchased in bulk. Many companies that use bulk bags now buy 50-lb. bags, which are easier to lift, instead of 100-lb. bags, to prevent employee injuries. Unfortunately, this also raises costs because two times as many bags must be purchased and delivered. When ingredients are delivered by the truckload and blown into the silos for storage, manufacturers can eliminate extra bag costs, as well as the risk of employee injury from lifting bags. In addition, the cost of paying employees to unload the truck and cut, dump and dispose of bags can be eliminated, says Dave Boger, sales manager, Flexicon Corp., Bethlehem, Pa.
“A lot of times [manufacturers] do not realize the savings until they actually have a system,” Friedrich notes. He says at first manufacturers may think they will only save about a dollar a bag, but once they own the system, they realize they also are saving on disposal costs and handling, and now they can fill up in the middle of the night, and even gain a more consistent product.
When using bulk ingredient handling systems, the flour is delivered in truckloads and sent straight into silos, allowing for more consistency in batches; whereas bulk bags might come from various shipments each containing 10,000 bags from different ages and batches. Those bags might then sit in a warehouse for two months before use.
Using bulk ingredient handling systems also helps lessen human errors because a machine, not an individual, weighs out the ingredients. “You can run a process with fewer operators if that’s the goal,” Boger says.
“When [bakers] buy handling systems or equipment, it’s to minimize labor. Automation is going to reduce labor,” agrees Hans Mentink, product manager, OK International Group, Marlborough, Mass.
The systems also improve sanitation. “If the system is designed properly, you can often keep the plant cleaner,” Boger says. “It can be easier to contain dust in the bulk material handling systems than if you’re dealing with paper sacks because dealing with paper sacks requires that the operator cut open a number of bags, and when you do that every time you cut open a bag you have an opportunity for dust to be generated, and then the operator needs to dispose of the bags as well. So you have more waste to be disposed of, more potential for contamination of the product and more potential for contamination of the plant environment by the product itself,” Boger says.
Dust also escapes when the empty bag is taken away. “Those bags can be clamped by vacuum and closed before they are taken away so you minimize any residual dust that escapes the so-called empty bag,” adds Bill Nesti, director of applications technology, AZO Inc., Memphis, Tenn.
Consumers are becoming more aware of various allergens, Boger says. When designing bulk handling systems, isolating allergens can be accomplished in numerous ways. “You can isolate the allergen to dedicated lines. If you’re doing pneumatic conveying, you can actually have separate conveying lines to handle a product with an allergen in it, so you don’t have to worry about cleaning the entire thing thoroughly,” Boger says. “The other option is to put in features that allow the equipment to more readily be cleaned, whether that’s quick disconnect access ports or clean and place nozzles. So the two approaches are: make sure it’s absolutely clean or keep it separate,” he adds.
While large bulk ingredients may need dedicated silos and conveying lines to help eliminate allergens, for minor ingredients, manufacturers can use a Dosibox, an interchangeable minor ingredient storage and batching system that allows manufacturers to “plug and play different ingredients into the batching system without cross contamination and with minimal cleanup,” Nesti says. He adds AZO’s equipment is designed to be easy to clean and offers toolless entry, so manufacturers can quickly open and access equipment to clean it without tools.
When manufacturers automate ingredients, such as soy, nonfat dry milk or nuts, the ingredients require alternate methods of moving through the system, Fischer says. “You have to be able to isolate that transfer system from the normal transfer system. So typically what we do is we have a dedicated dump station for these allergen ingredients. They are [still] pneumatically conveyed, but they’re conveyed to a separate hopper that sits above the mixer,” he adds.
Software packages help with the accuracy of the process. The software knows there should be a certain number of allergens with a combined weight based on the given formula. By pushing buttons on a screen, the operator confirms he dumped all the buckets or weighed all the ingredients and put them in the formulation. Once he has acknowledged everything is there, the ingredients are pneumatically conveyed to the hopper, positioned on load cells above the mixer. Manufacturers can compare what should have been dumped by volume of weight at the dump station with what actually transfered to the top into a check weigh, notes Fischer.
“If we check-weighed [the ingredients], and they didn’t equal what we knew the combined weight of those [ingredients should be], we’d alarm it and we wouldn’t dump it into the mixer until somebody acknowledged that they knew what happened,” Fischer says.
Bulk ingredient handling systems also can help trace ingredients and record batch information. This is especially important today as instances of food contamination appear on the news and customers become more concerned about product ingredients. Plants are automating more ingredients, including whole grains and seven grain, that were not used a decade ago, adding a new complexity to formulas and increasing the need for ingredient tracing, Fischer notes. He adds terrorism concern is another reason manufacturers want to know where a product is at each step of the process. Tracing ingredients is something companies are taking the initiative on as it is not yet a government mandate.
“You need to record where your product came from, and if you have a bad batch, you want to know why you had a bad batch,” Friedrich says.
“It’s more of a risk assessment and doing the right thing,” Nesti adds. If an issue arises with a product, manufacturers want to trace the history of a package shipped to a customer, find out what batch its ingredients came from, the date and time it was made, and trace it back to incoming raw material, the supplier and the lot number, he adds. “That gives you complete traceability. I think [manufacturers] are doing that by taking a higher level of responsibility [for] what they produce and send to their customer,” he adds.
Ingredient tracing is done in several ways. “We can provide a complete bar code system whereby you would read the incoming raw materials,” Nesti says. “They are registered and captured in the computer system, and then we’re able to trace those ingredients all the way through the process by identification, by which batch it was in, by lot number and by supplier, so you have complete traceability,” he adds.
“We have some customers now who will have two silos. They will empty the one silo totally out and then they’ll know that batch is finished. Then they’ll switch to the next silo,” Friedrich says. He adds manufacturers also can record batches by monitoring the exact weight of the contents in the silo. “If you don’t empty the silo totally [between batches], you lose some of that traceability because you have one batch going on top of another batch.”
Companies can record batches, and print out the time, date and batch number to record when the product was produced and the ingredients that went into the product, Friedrich says. However, Brackman notes that despite a computer’s ability to track lot numbers, and the addition of bar codes on bulk bags for easy scanning, most bakeries still record informaion by hand.
While most systems are automated today, Friedrich says many customers do not go the next step of implementing advanced programing and printing batch information. He adds advanced programming is becoming less expensive and more bakers are using it and wanting to know weights and batch dates. One of the biggest advancements is the computer controller, he adds.
“Information can be handled by a less expensive computer controlled unit, where in the past the customer had mechanical scales. Now you can record the information. You can send the information to other units. There’s a lot more communicating in between stations,” Friedrich says.
Brackman agrees he has seen advancements in computer control. “As we’re getting more into the tracing of ingredients, the programs we’re putting together for our customers are becoming more sophisticated, and the packages out there are becoming more sophisticated, so it’s getting much more involved than it used to be,” he adds.
“The hot buttons in the baking industry are to have systems that are flexible and also systems that are more efficient,” Nesti says. “Our control systems provide active real time graphics of the process. You can point and click on any device and get a pop up window on your control system that can be used for training, troubleshooting and maintenance. You don’t have to look for a role of drawings anymore, the diagnostic for maintenance and troubleshooting are right on the computer screen. This would give you run times for motors or the number of cycles on valves. You can be proactive with maintenance,” he says. This means the system can run longer.
Today, manufacturers want to not only add flour to handling systems, but also want to add oil and eggs, which isn’t as costly as it once was and can now be done with one control unit, Friedrich says. “The [baker] not only draws 10 lbs. of flour and 10 lbs. of sugar, he can also have 10 liters of oil and water, all in a central batching recipe system,” he says.
Fischer agrees while liquid bulk handling capabilities are not new, more companies that previously handled only dry ingredients have started to automate liquids in the last seven to 10 years.
Dry ingredients and liquids are stored separately until they are delivered through different piping systems and combined in the mixer, Brackman notes.
“What we’re trying to advance on is just getting that simple system to do as much as possible. It’s very easy to spend lots of money and do everything, but we’re trying to spend a lot less money to do everything, and that is happening because electronics are getting cheaper and [we are] modifying our systems,” Friedrich says.
Gaining more control
“More customers are asking about true inventory control over what’s in the silo,” Fischer says. He adds using low, high-level probes and mid-level probes to tell how much flour is in the bin is common, but a lot of Shick’s customers are asking for ultrasonic level indicators or load cells on the silos to track inventory. “It also helps them keep their flour miller honest by making sure that when he said he unloaded 40,000 lbs., the load cells are going to show he unloaded 40,000 lbs.,” Fischer says.
He adds carbon steel silos are less common. “There is [the idea] that aluminum and stainless are more cleanable, they’re more sanitary, even though carbon steel silos have been around for years,” Fischer says. Carbon steel silos feature a baked-on enamel with a durable finish, but some worry the finish could flake off into the ingredients. “We’ve been seeing more customers interested in aluminum and stainless. Now, as the aluminum and stainless prices have [risen] higher and higher, I’m sure there will come a point where it would be hard to cost-justify that as well,” he adds.
As more companies expand to include the global market, Mentink says having equipment that can be purchased worldwide will become increasingly important. OK International Group has more than 1,000 bag-in-box packaging systems operating in more than 60 countries, which helps OK International’s customers maintain process consistency.
Rules and regulations may also increase. Nesti says the FDA may start to require food manufacturers to follow a rule named 21CFR part 11, a code of federal regulations requiring electronic signatures for data in the process and operation. Such a rule already exists for the pharmaceutical industry, he says. Fischer agrees rules are going to grow more stringent. From locking doors to tracing ingredients and monitoring allergens, companies are becomingmore careful. “It’s all part of that tightening up the ship to make sure nothing happens,” Fischer adds.
Companies looking to purchase bulk handling systems can expect to spend about $150,000 for a one-silo single-scale system to several million dollars on a large production plant bulk system for multiple ingredients, Nesti says.
“The most important thing a project engineer should know when he’s designing a bulk material handling system is open lines of communication are absolutely critical,” Boger says. “It’s very important that there’s a good dialogue between the equipment supplier and the customer to make sure the customer’s needs can all be met and you want to make sure as a customer that you pick an equipment supplier with a good reputation in the industry and one that will guarantee its products,” Boger adds.