COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of food safety. Line automation and slicing equipment manufacturers have paid close attention to this trend as automated portion handling with downstream equipment is becoming increasingly important to reduce manual handling of product and overall labor.

“Optimized slicing yields, machine hygiene, and overall simplicity continue to be important,” said Scott Scriven, executive vice president at Provisur Technologies Inc., Mokena, Ill. “Slicers must be sophisticated enough to handle all of the processing challenges while remaining simple enough to be properly maintained and operated. Being flexible to accommodate a variety of portions and packaging formats is also important.”

Brian Sandberg, director of product management at Provisur, noted the company offers a wide range of standard and customized portion handling solutions, and are always working on new developments to push the boundaries.

“The SX series of slicers packs a large performance into a small footprint,” he said. “The SX380 and its smaller sibling, the SX330, offer higher throughputs that were previously available only in a larger slicer.”

Michael Kleck, director of sales for Schiwa Slicing Technologies, Pluederhausen, Germany, noted there are two trends which the company has experienced in the market for some time now.

“First, customers are looking for more automated solutions in order to save labor costs,” he said. “Secondly customers want to reduce waste in order to gain the maximum yield from their raw material. Reduction of give-away and maximization of yield is top. Lastly another continuous aspect remains, a top hygienic design level.”

Thomas M. Springman, managing partner of Pennsylvania-based Kerres USA LLC and North American representative for Schiwa, noted Schiwa has a long tradition of focusing exactly on the above-mentioned targets and providing tailor-made solutions with fully automated concepts, scanning systems, and precise control of the portions along the complete line.

Chris Mason, director of sales, processing division for Kansas City, Mo.-based Multivac Inc., has seen a growing demand for snack packs and protein packs containing sliced meats, cheese and crackers.

“Also, a lot of the open deli counters have been impacted by COVID-19 and this has accelerated the growth of grab-and-go – packs of pre-sliced deli meats that are created in processing facilities and sealed in thermoformed pouches with a ‘just sliced at the deli counter appearance.’ We are also seeing increasing demand for complete line solutions; with some customers preferring to buy complete solutions from one provider.”

Mason noted Multivac provides complete slicing line equipment – from slicing to packaging and end-of-line equipment – with the unique feature of integrated line control across all components.

“This means that operators can start and stop elements of the line including the slicer at every connected terminal in the line for added convenience and efficiency,” he said. “Complete line solutions designed and manufactured from a single source also ensure that each component in the line is designed to work specifically with each part, minimizing floor space and optimizing performance.”

Zach Bearson, packaging product line manager for Kansas City, Mo.-based Weber Inc., noted discussion-worthy topics that remain on the forefront when it comes to technology and trends include answering the questions, “How can we slice more? How can we control product better to achieve higher yields and reduce giveaway? And how can we better design equipment for sanitation and hygiene?”

“Changes in the sliced category at retail, grab-n-go and its growth being a perfect example, are driving innovation in the space, forcing equipment manufacturers to come up with creative solutions,” he said. “In terms of the grab-n-go movement, this is critical. We’ve had to come up with solutions for controlling weight while slicing ‘variable slice count’ portions, for example. We have had to slice variable weight portions within a pre-determined range or style fixed weight portions as a staggered stack to be more representative of the portions a consumer receives when buying product sliced by hand at the deli.”

With Italian-style meats and dried sausage, which Bearson calls the hottest segment of the market in recent years, Weber has focused on how to style portions differently for snacking and charcuterie.

“Handling some of the popular portions, small diameter product in short stacks or shingles, can be difficult so we’ve had to think about transitions and automation and optimize components downstream from the slicer,” he said.

For example, the company’s Textor TS700 Whole Muscle solution, addressing the whole muscle challenges, incorporates automatic loading, product scanning, and special handling features to ensure that the product is scanned (to understand volume, allowing for high level of weight control when slicing using checkweigher feedback) and delivered to the slicing blade in the same orientation.

Fully integrated slicing lines offer significant advantages to operators.

Maintenance matters

With slicing technology, the demands are growing daily for functionality and availability of lines developed to work in extremely challenging production conditions along with operators which are asking for simple operation of even the most complex lines.

“The Schiwa design and development department considers those aspects while creating new solutions, providing the customer base with relevant technological features,” Kleck said. “Amongst other benefits, lines are prepared for primarily remote service, enabling direct and quick support.”

As equipment designs continue to improve, the need for general maintenance decreases and moves to more intelligent and focused maintenance.

That’s why Mason noted there is a clear trend toward predictive maintenance.

“For slicers, Multivac offers a solution called Maintenance Manager, that clearly identifies on the control panel which components need to be serviced and when,” he said.

Scriven noted slicers must be able to withstand regular high temperature cleaning, such as with steam cleaning, which is why Provisur slicers are available with remote mounted electrical panels to extend electrical component life and minimize issues related to steam cleaning the machines.

Additionally, toolless assembly and disassembly is a must for slicers as it simplifies sanitation and maintenance.

Weber tries to make the slicers as easy and “tool free” to maintain as possible.

“Arguably, the biggest leap in terms of ease to maintain the equipment has come in the more open design of today’s slicers, which makes them more ergonomic and accessible while being better for hygiene and sanitation processes as well,” Bearson said. “The maintenance required always depends on the slicer model, and application related set up, but in general we work to make our belts easily removable in a tool-free manner and our blades easy (and safe) to change through utilization of our Weber blade guard tools.”

Feature focus

Visioning systems assist in minimizing give-away and maximizing yields that generate cost savings and return on investment. Mason noted they are ideal for all applications with naturally shaped products such as cooked ham applications and cheeses.

Springman shared that visioning systems are becoming a more important technical feature as they provide a high return on the investment within a short time by maximizing the performance and output of the raw material.

“Hygienic surfaces also play a major role in the overall hygiene consideration of the line,” he said. “Schiwa has always used Electro Polishing for all surfaces to enhance the level of hygiene quality.”

Sandberg said slicing blades are one of the most important components in a slicer as it is where the metal hits the meat.

“We have spent a lot of time and effort over the last couple of years developing new blades, including using corrosion resistant, harder edge materials as well as different grind angles and patterns,” he said. “Our new MaxLife blade design enables us to increase slicing yields, extends the time between regrinds, and eliminates blade corrosion. The blades are available on our SX platform of slicers, the CashinEdge, and our legacy slicer installed base.”


Diverse product offerings

Today, there is an increasing trend in more product options, whether it’s stacked versus shingled in bacon slicing or different slicing technologies that adapt to the various packaging formats in deli meats.

Depending on the customer’s sales concept, Springman shared that either mono lines with high volume of a single product or flexible lines, ready to adapt quickly to different product dimensions and die set formats are asked for and Schiwa offers integrated line solutions for all such options.

“This design concept reduces down-time to a minimum,” he said. “When it comes to presentation of portions, Schiwa offers all known options and provides solutions for regional- and customer-related special applications. The desire of the customer is our business – perfect slicing quality combined with perfect presentation inside the package.”

Mason noted Multivac offers a high variety of portion designs to accommodate the diversity of deli meats being marketed.

“The benefit of sourcing an integrated slicing/packaging line from one source is that there is a centralized contact person and technical support from a single, highly accountable, supplier,” he said. “Once the line equipment is defined, customers can run a wide variety of different applications which ensures high flexibility with efficient equipment utilization and performance. Each machine within the line is designed to work perfectly in concert with the others.”