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Overcoming rising energy prices

Given that energy accounts for 15 per cent of food and drink manufacturers’ costs, according research by Centrica Business Solutions, the continued rise of energy prices is a major concern for these companies. Indeed, the same study found that 56 per cent of manufacturers believe investing in energy efficiency technologies is “very important” for their business. But where should they invest? Here, Stephen Harding, managing director of Gough Engineering, looks at how improved material handling processes can help manufacturers overcome rising energy costs.

Energy costs were a significant worry for businesses across the UK, last year. In April 2022, 21 per cent of businesses surveyed by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that energy prices were their main concern, up from 15 per cent in February. These figures have remained consistent ever since.

So, how can food processors better offset these costs, and how can they do this while benefiting production and yielding a return on investment (ROI)? It all boils down to how businesses optimise their production processes — and that includes material handling.

Equipment schemes

Proper material handling is about optimising the mechanical and physical relationship between products and ingredient flows, versus machinery and processes.

Equipment schemes describe bespoke systems that ensure a plant’s production line runs according to the manufacturer’s key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs would generally include the time, quality and quantity of production, and the manufacturer’s core value adding process to manufacture end products.

An equipment scheme can rely on equipment to automate the weighing, mixing, cooking, heating and cooling operations during a process. This equipment may have built-in quality assurance systems for sieving or screening processes to ensure products are transferred, or conveyed, from one process to another without them being damaged.

Weigher systems, for instance, check the quantity of produce or ingredients at certain stages of production. Industry 4.0 sensors can capture this data, relaying it to Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to control, monitor and visualise the information. Scheme controls can be integrated into existing systems, and controlled from a central SCADA location through easy-to-use Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs).

But how can manufacturers achieve costs savings and an improved ROI through control schemes? This is where the partnership of a trusted materials handling expert is essential. A partner can review the sequential and functional needs of materials management on the customer’s production line, and plan how to optimise these processes in order to best serve the plant’s KPIs.

The right calculations 

Let’s look at food conveying systems as an example. Conveyors, whether they are floor-mounted or overhead, must transport produce safely, carefully and efficiently between the various machines on a production line — from the weighers and processing machinery, all the way to the packing line.

The first questions that Gough Engineering asks its customers at the start of a project are: “What type of material are you transporting?” and “What product throughput rate do you need to achieve with this conveying system?” For the latter, the customer will respond with a figure of tonnes or kilograms per hour. Gough Engineering’s specialists then establish further clarification of volume rates, bulk densities, transfer lengths and orientations, feed points, distribution points, and can then prescribe a suitable solution.

Bucket elevators are often overlooked when considering material transportation, but they can be a more suitable option than linear conveyors. This is particularly important for transporting dry bulk materials, ingredients and part-completed products. A materials handling expert can provide you with guidance on what’s best for you, based on your specific material.

To determine the best elevator design to convey a product, we must consider three factors. First, bucket capacity, which refers to the volume of product that can be held in each bucket. Every bucket is filled to a specific per cent of its overall capacity, to ensure that all of the product is retained — doesn’t spill over the edges — during transport.

The second factor is bucket pitch. For instance, when the bucket elevator system is mounted between two parallel chains, correct buck pitch means determining the correct distance between the centres of each bucket. This determines how much product can be transported. Third is bucket speed, or the rate at which the buckets are travelling.

These factors combined give us the total volumetric capacity moving through a specific conveying design. This allows the product to be transported correctly and carefully to suit the required distance of travel, while also integrating the process into the overall feed, distribution and production line requirements.

In some cases, a belt and bucket elevator, where buckets are fixed to a belt running at high speeds, might be the best choice. These systems allow high throughput rates of cubic metres per hour. However, they also involve a lot of kinetic energy due to the centrifugal forces created, which can lead to product degradation and damage.

As an alternative, a pendulum bucket elevator system, mounted between two parallel chains, might be more suitable. As the name suggests, the buckets hang like in a pendulum, travelling in all elevator positions in a horizontal position, and are eventually tipped using a cam to discharge the product at the desired location. While this system can be slower than other solutions, it offers gentler product handling with less spillage than high-speed alternatives. A pendulum bucket elevator can convey buckets in many shape configurations, with multiple inlets (feeds) and controlled discharge positions.

Reducing waste 

Let’s imagine an instance where 25 kg bags are emptied into the necessary production processes. In this scenario, waste can accumulate in terms of lost produce during de-bagging, as well as packaging materials. Not only is this process wasteful, but the manual approach also creates safety concerns for human workers. There’s the repetitiveness of the material handling task itself, and the need to perform multiple operations in order to move pallets of product bags around for de-bagging — these factors can cause bottlenecks in the flow of production.

As a solution, Gough Engineering recommends the customer install FIBC Big Bag Dischargers. This technology provides lifting support to make emptying large bags easy and efficient. FIBC Big Bag Dischargers can eliminate product loss, capture any dust and prevent contamination thanks to their enclosed design. By automating the debagging process, the customer increases throughout and minimises waste.

Equipment schemes and automated material handling give manufacturers new ways to offset rising energy costs, while boosting production and ROI. Moreover, these systems can also empower manufacturers to tackle the rising prices head-on.

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