If product-processing equipment is the heart of a meat and poultry plant, conveyors may well be the central nervous system. Conveyors that move product, whether from slaughter to further processing, cooking to chilling or packaging to warehousing, keep everything humming in meat and poultry plants. When conveyor systems and their components are not working properly or at peak capacity, there can be a true domino effect that impacts uptime, yield, sanitation and safety and other operational issues.

Not surprisingly, then, conveyors and belts are a focus of new materials and technologies. While the essential function of conveyors hasn’t changed that much, conveyor design, materials and applications have evolved to meet the changing needs of protein processors.

Even within one processing facility, those needs may differ, points out Jamie Card, marketing specialist for Wire Belt Company of America, Londonderry, N.H. “The meat-and poultry-processing industry is unique for belts and conveyors because it is so diverse. There are a variety of different cooking processes and applications, such as breading, battering, frying, coating, baking, grilling, cooling, freezing and others, where belting and conveyors are necessary. And each application is different and poses different challenges,” she explains.

As a testament to the significant role played by conveyors, many manufacturers have recently developed new conveying systems and upgraded others. Many of those innovations center on sanitation, which continues to be at or near the top of the list of processors’ priorities.

Sanitation is key
Marty Tabaka, sales director for the Americas for Winchester, Va.-based conveyor belt supplier Ashworth Bros. Inc., says sanitation is part and parcel of any conveyor design. “Processors are looking for durability and wanting to go wider and faster to get more throughput in a shorter period of time. They have a constant pressure to improve cleanability and sanitation attributes of the equipment,” he observes. Among other upgrades, Ashworth has introduced a new ExactaStack, a dropin replacement for standard and wide belt stackers with plastic spiral modules allowing for an open area.

Card also cites sanitation as a highpriority driver. “From a conveying standpoint, one of the biggest changes you’ll see is the focus on sanitary design for ease of cleaning to eliminate pathogens and allergens. As a result, proper cleaning and sanitation of conveying equipment is becoming more of a concern in the industry,” she remarks. Most recently, Wire Belt Co. launched a CompactGrid conveyor belt with a 70 percent open surface area designed to replace heavier balanced weave belts and hard-to-clean plastic modular belts. Wire Belt Co. also offers a line of stainless-steel hygienic conveyors.

Dana Summerour, corporate account manager for conveying solutions provider Intralox LLC in Harahan, La., agrees that ongoing demands for capacity, throughput, speed and efficiency must be balanced by sanitation. “Food-safety standards aren’t going away – they are getting tougher, and our focus is to help processors meet those requirements,” she remarks. Case in point: Intralox has recently upgraded its ThermoDrive line of hygienic belting.

Cleanability is top of mind as well for Dorner Mfg. Corp, Hartland, Wis., which will debut a product upgrade this month, with new AquaPruf conveyor drip pans, in-feed chutes and hinged guiding. According to Mike Hosch, director of product development, the accessories will provide additional functionality to the conveyor package while maintaining tool-less cleanability and serviceability.

Likewise, Michael Brown, industry and marketing director for Jeffersonville, Ind.-based Interroll Automation LLC, a supplier of rollers, components, drives and modules for material handling, says sanitation is more important than ever. “We have a much more hygienic solution for our drum motors today utilizing smooth surfaces and zero-maintenance construction,” he reports adding that cleaning time can be reduced by one-third with hygienic design. In the spring of 2011, Interroll will introduce a new synchronous drum motor engineered according to Engineering Hygiene Design Group design criteria.

Maintenance matters
While manufacturers are working to improve the sanitary design of their new conveyors and accessories, they also offer advice to keep things clean and running. Conveyor belts, which can have a life span of up to six or more years depending on the function, need to be maintained to ensure their optimum running and cleanability.

“A conveyor belt only goes where it’s being pushed,” points out Tabaka, adding that service and support by experts, combined with operator education, goes hand-in-hand with sanitation techniques and tools to maximize conveyor reliability.

Card also underscores proper maintenance for conveyors, and notes that maintenance employees should be trained on proper belt operation procedures. “Communication between maintenance and sanitation is essential,” she declares, suggesting that sanitation and maintenance teams should work together to ensure the best-possible knowledge about conveying systems.

Knowing potential pitfalls in both sanitation and operation also can help prevent conveyor problems. Hosch, for instance, says one common issue with conveyors is improper belt tracking, which causes a belt to ride up the side frame or end roller. “In addition to damaging the belt, this also causes debris to be created, which can contaminate the food product,” he says, noting that belt-tracking devices can ensure the belt is properly tracked.

There can also be issues with materials, according to Summerour. “It’s not just the belt. Depending on moisture in the area and the amount of ingredients and seasonings, we try to tailor the right product and material – even the color – to ensure maximum belt life,” she says. Picking the right belt for the right application in the first place also goes a long way in reliability and proper sanitation.

Beyond a commitment to maintain and service conveyor systems, knowing how (and how often) to clean them properly is also key. “Cleaning a conveyor belt is not something that should be taken lightly. That’s why it’s very important to use guidelines and follow a written sanitation standard operation procedure [SSOP],” says Card, who also recommends using “belt-friendly” brushes, scrapers and wands for cleaning and following the proper cleaning ratios provided by chemical suppliers.

Automated innovations
Finally, while sanitary design is an influential component of conveyor and conveyor accessory design, that doesn’t mean processors and manufacturers aren’t looking at other innovations, especially as margins remain tight. Today’s conveyors are built for more continuous operation, optimum product placement and detectability.

Automation also continues to be refined. Summerour, for instance, reports that Intralox has been working on implementing low-cost solutions using activated roller-belt technology. “That is simple automation in a condensed footprint,” she says.

Meanwhile, JBT FoodTech, Sandusky, Ohio, one of the largest sellers of spiral belts through its oven and freezer systems, has focused on automation as well as efficiency and sanitary design. The Stein GYRo-COMPACT GCO II-1000 Oven, for instance, has a patented interlocking, self-stacking FRIGoBELT, with side links forming a consistent and well-contained cooking environment in all levels of the spiral belt stack.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.