By Del Williams
A conveyor OEM testing facility lets food packagers verify the performance of their product on tubular disc and cable conveyors
Even when people love the look of a car or SUV, most would not complete a purchase before a test drive to confirm how the vehicle performs on the road.
Similarly, today an increasing number of food packagers are realizing the importance of “test driving” conveyor equipment at OEM test facilities, which use their actual product to ensure the equipment meets processor quality, flow, and cleaning requirements before they make the purchase.
In response, some OEMs have invested in state-of-the-art test facilities that allow food packagers to run product on the same type of equipment they are considering for purchase, while benefiting from expert consultation to optimize their process.
“We encourage food processors to test their products [at our facility] and observe the results to ensure it meets their needs,” explains Larry Van Zee, recently-retired executive vice-president at Cablevey Conveyors (www.cablevey.com) in Oskaloosa, Ia.
“They can ask questions in real time. They can test for fines or degradation. They can see for themselves how the product flows in the conveyor and how easy it is to clean,” Van Zee states.
With system installations in 66 countries, Cablevey is a well-known mechanical conveyor manufacturer that serves the food packaging, specialty food, coffee, powder, nut, frozen food and pet food markets.
At its full-service product test centre in Oskaloosa, the OEM has tested more than 1,900 products, including beans, rice, grains, cereals, coffee, chocolate, and caramel corn peanut snacks, for some of the largest global brands.
All products are run through a tubular disc and cable conveying system to observe the effects and fine-tune the results.
According to Cablevey’s product testing manager, Scott Berning, there are multiple reasons food packagers decide to visit the test centre.
“Customers may have products that we know will run well on tubular cable conveyors, but they want to see it in operation with their own eyes,” says Berning.
“They want to ensure the product will run properly, and their quality department typically checks as part of their due diligence before purchasing equipment.”
Berning adds that when Cablevey’s applications department designs and quotes a conveyor and the manufacturer lacks sufficient experience conveying a specific product, the email quote states it is “pending successful product testing.”
Some food packagers want to evaluate tubular cable conveyors against other conveying options they may also be considering, such as bucket elevators or chain conveyors.
Others are already familiar with tubular cable conveyors based on experience, and want to show their managers that a similar solution could be implemented at their current facility.
Once the food packager is at the site, Cablevey product specialists and engineers typically consult with the customer to determine their specific goals and issues to be resolved.
Once done, they can proceed to design a conveyor with a set of features that addresses specific challenges.
“Our technicians and engineers can diagnose and prescribe a solution whether the concern is breakage, temperature, stickiness, abrasiveness or other issues,” says Berning.
He notes that when food packagers test products at the facility, they are provided with full documentation of the results, including a detailed report with video and recommendations.
According to Berning, testing for product fragility and damage is usually the primary concern for food packagers.
“No matter the product—whether it’s a cereal, crackers or nuts—processors want to keep their product intact and avoid damage during conveying,” says Berning.
He points out that tubular drag cable conveyors excel at reducing product damage, since the units gently move product through a sealed tube using a coated, flexible stainless-steel drag cable pulled through on a loop.
Featuring solid circular discs (flights) attached to the cable—pushing the product through the tube without using air pressure—these conveyors can transport delicate, precise blends for a wide variety of food types, at up to 2,000 cubic feet per hour of materials, in versatile layouts and configurations.
Still, quality assurance checks can be essential for packagers even those transporting products that seem hard to damage, like flour.
“For flour, it can be hard to tell if it is being damaged, but maintaining the particle size is important,” Berning explains.
“If flour is transported too roughly, the particles can become finer, leading to inconsistent recipes and cooking results.
“So, there is a lot of science that goes into the testing.”
Reducing product loss and maintenance is also important to packagers, according to Berning.
“Processors want to place their material in an inlet and then have all of it emerge from the discharge with minimal losses,” he says.
“Since tubular cable conveyors are sealed from end-to-end, with product traveling one way in enclosed tubes, there is essentially no product loss and no issue with carry-back.”
The ease of cleaning the conveyor is also a top priority for food packagers, many of who visit the facility primarily to witness how easily the conveyor can be cleaned.
“People come here from across North America just to watch me perform a conveyor wet-clean and washdown, even though it is something I have to do every day,” says Berning.
“Traditional alternatives like screw conveyors can be difficult to clean and require time-consuming disassembly, as well as some heavy lifting after each product changeover,” he says.
“One food processor told me that it took six of his technicians about eight hours to clean their screw conveyor system,” Berning relates. “They had to pull a big auger out of the screw conveyor, which was dangerous to handle.”
In contrast, tubular drag cable conveyor systems offer easier, safer options for dry and wet tube conveyor cleaning. Equipment such as brush boxes, urethane wipers, air knives, inline sponges, and inline bristle brushes can facilitate multi-step, essentially automated, Clean-In-Place (CIP) wet cleaning.
The wet cleaning process internally cleans the cable conveyor tube in several steps, starting with a water rinse and followed by introdcution of foaming agent, a sanitizing rinse, and a final water rinse. Once the system is thoroughly flushed out, drying is achieved by attaching urethane wipers to the tubular conveyor’s discs, which act like a ‘squeegee’ to remove any residual water.
For those unable to visit the test facility in person, Cablevey now offers the ability to view and respond to product testing live via a virtual visit with a link to real-time video and a Zoom meeting-type format—an option developed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With this technology, the tubular cable conveyor manufacturer can host both in-person and virtual visits simultaneously, which is helpful when larger work groups such as quality assurance teams have an interest in evaluating the conveyor.
“In one recent product test, a team of four visited our facility in person, while 12 others watched virtually,” says Berning.
For those who wish to experience the world-class facility in greater detail, Cablevey has created a 360-degree immersive virtual tour of the product test centre on its website, featuring an embedded virtual reality (VR) experience with full product information and videos.
The video library demonstrates how tubular cable conveyors transport different materials such as coffee beans, grains, bird seed, tea leaves and breakfast cereals. For their part, the accompanying how-to videos illustrate potential layouts, components, technologies, cleaning, and maintenance options.
With easily accessible, advanced product testing facilities, food packagers can view and verify in real-time that their investment in new conveying equipment will meet their requirements.
Packagers who “test drive” their product in this way will not only enhance their product quality and productivity, but also experience a significant advantage over competitors.
Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, Ca.