Allergies to foods are probably the most frightening forms of allergic reaction, with symptoms ranging from very mild to severe anaphylaxis. Guaranteeing food safety is becoming increasingly difficult in the context of changing food habits and globalisation of supply. The World Health Organisation is promoting efforts to improve food safety from farm to plate, whilst the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) system identifies where hazards might occur in the food production process and puts into place stringent actions on prevention.
The Risks – The number of food recalls and their cost to businesses and society are rising. A contaminated product can cause sickness for the consumer (or at its worst, death), multi-million dollar losses for the company along with reputational damage.
There are over 170 foods known to provoke allergic reactions, but the most common are found in everyday sources such as milk, eggs, shellfish, wheat, nuts, seeds, fruit and soya. Even tiny amounts of the allergen can cause a reaction, so strict controls and regulations need to be present to ensure total integrity of the final product.
A major challenge facing manufacturers is how to handle an ever increasing portfolio of products which use a diverse range of ingredients, all within the context of reducing manufacturing costs, minimising product waste and achieving superior product quality and safety for the consumer.
Waiting is not productive – Traditional manufacturing plants that use fixed in-line mixers and pneumatic conveying can prove to be problematical when handling allergens. For a start they can be complicated to clean. Once a batch has been processed, the whole operating line needs to be shut-down for thorough wet-washing and drying. This can take a whole shift depending on the processing line design and size. For some lines, this can also involve a considerable amount of manpower for cleaning.
Any traces of allergen must be eliminated. Verifying this is the case can be very time-consuming and costly in itself. Often bakery manufacturers will send a batch of flour through the process line after cleaning, and then examine it for allergen content. If the smallest element is detected the whole line is washed again and re-tested. This is obviously costly both in terms of time taken, but also the waste of product used for these validation purposes.
Costly inventory – Because of these high costs involved with recipe changes, some manufacturers adopt ‘campaign manufacturing’, running larger batches through the system than the initial order. Whilst this looks better on paper from an equipment efficiency point of view and ensures stock for future orders, allowing the company to respond quickly to such requests. The building up of inventory ties up cash and is at risk of obsolescence if not properly managed.
Cross-contamination – Management of dust in the environment is also critical. Products need to be separated where there is an allergen risk. For some this means different buildings rather than just separate lines or creating specific hygiene zones with dust extraction systems, all at great expense.
The case at Bakels – In 2012 British Bakels (UK) began the first phase of a £2.5m investment to improve their production flexibility in order to accommodate small batch runs and high recipe variety and to more efficiently handle allergen ingredients.
The original facilities were centred on 2 vertical conical fixed mixers fed via a conveying system from silos holding flour and sugar. Other ingredients were then added from big bags or sacks via mechanical conveyors. Bakels recognised that this system was not going to be flexible enough to cope with smaller batch runs. Each mixer was taking 4 operators almost half a shift to clean, resulting in 22% downtime for cleaning alone. They did as many manufacturers do and campaign manufactured, which led to expensive inventory going to waste in their warehouse.
They looked for a supplier to provide a more flexible system that could sit alongside the existing manufacturing equipment, which would continue to be used for the high running, low variety recipes. Matcon was selected to supply an IBC system that could be installed in a small ‘footprint’ but offer maximum production flexibility.
Decoupled for maximum flexibility – As materials are transported throughout the production processes in Intermediate Bulk Containers (also known as bins), cleaning can be done off-line rather than requiring a full shut-down of production. This permits a full clean of the IBC with water (and detergent where needed) allowing sufficient time for thorough drying. The simple design of the bin stops any particles being trapped and allows for easy inspection and validation.
Furthermore, with in-bin blending, the ingredients are mixed in the IBC itself rather than coming in to contact with any mixer blades, therefore there is no need to clean the blender between recipes even when an allergen is present. This has reduced the time needed to clean-down for Bakels from 480 man hours to just 70. Because there is no need to clean, the mixer can be switched to a new recipe immediately, ensuring a high Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) rate and quick response to customer orders. In fact, £175,000 of cash was immediately released by significantly reducing the inventory that Bakels needed to hold.
They have also discovered that the IBC can be assured to completely discharge all its contents every time. This QbD (Quality by Design) gives them added reassurance throughout the IBC system.
Get Dust under control – Because the IBC system remains closed at all times, even during the discharge process, the risk of dust being created or entering the system is significantly reduced. This means that allergens can be handled in the same building, thereby reducing the need for separate areas or hygiene zones. Due to this closed nature, multiple recipes can be produced simultaneously.
How can you make simple changes? – An IBC system might not be for everyone. If you have invested heavily in a fixed mixer then this will need to stay. However, what can be easily changed is for IBCs to be used to ‘decouple’ the mixer from the filling and packing processes. This means that all the processes can happen at the same time, they are not interdependent and waiting around time is significantly reduced. This will help to reduce the line down-time for cleaning. Often manufacturers will have the mixer shut-down for cleaning whilst IBCs are being used to feed to the packing lines and others are being filled with ingredients in readiness for the mixer to be back in action.
In some cases this has been shown to double the capacity of the line. It doesn’t remove the risk of cleaning out the allergens, but it certainly helps to improve efficiency and the cost of production. It is possible to take a ‘staged approach’ when implementing a decoupled system solution, typical changes made include:
- Decoupling mixing from packing – this can double the capacity of either/both pieces of equipment, especially where frequent cleaning is a necessity.
- Decoupling material batching from mixing – this typically increases available process time (and thereby efficiency) by some 50% or more. The bigger the batches, the greater the time-saving typically gets, as the period it takes for an operator to load the mixer is directly related to the volume of raw material required.
What will you do tomorrow? – The widening of consumer tastes to include ever more varied ingredients and the globalisation of the food supply has meant that the risk of allergen contamination is ever present. How will you look at improving the control of allergens in your processing plant whilst keeping production costs to a minimum?
Lean Thinking combined with flexible and agile IBC technology has the potential to dramatically improve the efficiency and profitability in any business. Who knows what products tomorrow will bring, but let’s be ready to meet that challenge together!
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