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Protecting profitability in food and beverage applications

Protecting profitability in food and beverage applications

Phil Burge of SKF explains how food processing and packaging companies can make significant improvements to production line efficiency.

Food and beverage applications present severe challenges to machinery, and extremes of temperature are among the most difficult. These operating conditions can take a heavy toll on machine uptime and plant productivity, and dealing with them while trying to stay compliant with health, safety and environmental regulations is a considerable challenge.

To provide protection against these threats to profitability, a series of solutions have recently been designed to increase productivity and reduce environmental impact. For example, corrosion resistant drives and chains have been developed to prevent contamination, high temperature bearings that release minute amounts of graphite powder to lubricate the bearing offer an excellent dry lubricant option, and new seals have been designed to prevent bearings and foodstuffs from becoming contaminated.

With drives expected to work reliably day upon day (and in some applications around the clock), the best manufacturers are preparing their belts and chains for high performance in extreme temperatures and/or contaminated environments. Corrosion resistant chains in stainless steel or with a protective coating will cope with not only aggressive environments where protection is required to withstand the elements but also hygienic applications such as food processing where the surrounding environment needs to be protected from contamination.

Heat is a challenge common to food manufacture and processing applications, with bearings and seals continually subjected to extreme temperatures, exceeding 150°C in baking, frying and roasting equipment. SKF Food Line Y-bearing units have been developed to withstand an extremely wide range of operating temperatures between -150°C and +350°C and require little or no lubrication, enabling users to reduce both maintenance requirements and costs. Where temperatures do not exceed 95°C, SKF bearings with Solid Oil, which feature a solid form of lubricant that completely fills the free space within the bearing, minimise the risk of food contamination, as the components are able to withstand considerable centrifugal forces without leaking.

At the opposite end of the temperature scale, components are also under considerable stress. Standard seals are generally unable to cope with temperatures inside freezers, leading to equipment failure and downtime, while lubricants can also freeze, bringing production to a standstill. Seals are also damaged by severe changes in temperature, such as when low temperature equipment is cleaned during wash-downs. Temperature can change dramatically, causing the air in a bearing first to expand as it heats up and then to contract as the temperature drops again, putting immense pressure on the seal to open up. These intense cleaning processes also present the risk of moisture entering a bearing cavity and corroding the component.

However, a range of seal materials have been developed for use in food industry applications, to prevent the bearings being corroded and food being contaminated by leaking lubricant. For example, PTFE is able to withstand extreme temperatures and lubricant-free installations, as it displays low friction levels and will not adhere to a bearing's counter surface. These seals can also effectively withstand particularly aggressive chemical cleaning, eliminating the problem of flaking and bacteria accumulation. PTFE seals are available in FDA approved compounds, specially designed for reducing contamination in food processing applications.

In proving ovens, high pressure wash-downs and humid operating conditions cause premature failure to conveyor chains and bearings, leading to an increased risk of product contamination and unnecessary maintenance and re-lubrication costs.  

Under these conditions, moisture, water and cleaning fluid will creep into bearings, resulting in reduced lubrication. This is because the bearing grease will absorb the water and emulsify, changing the consistency of the grease and allowing it to wash out. Along with corrosion accelerated by the humid environment, this can cause the guide wheel bearings of proving oven conveyors to fail.

Prompted by customers who have experienced similar difficulties, the designers and engineers of conveyor components have worked with OEMs to review the system and mini-mise such main-tenance issues in the future. An efficient solution that has emerged from this collaboration is the use of air-assisted oil projection lubrication systems to address issues connected to manual chain lubrication.

An air-assisted oil projection lubrication system enables reliable and effective lubrication of the conveyor chain, eliminates related downtime and reduces maintenance costs. Through accurate oil projection, the system prevents lubricant waste and reduces environmental and operator safety issues created by excess oil. Volumetric piston pumps precisely deliver a metered volume of lubricant to the points of friction while the chain is in operation, while a control unit can be preset to the preferred timing for lubricant application.

Because the projection nozzles have no mechanical contact with the chains, dirt accumulation and applicator wear are prevented. The chain does not need to be stopped for re-lubrication, so productivity is increased, while longer service life is achieved due to decreased chain wear and reduced friction lowers energy consumption. In food and beverage applications such as this, an air-assisted oil projection lubrication system also helps support the HACCP process in producing safe food by preventing contamination from the lubricant.   

By implementing solutions such as these, food manufacturers can maintain uptime and plant productivity while remaining compliant with health, safety and environmental regulations.
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