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Conveyor belts - Metal, plastic, or both?

19 December 2016

Food Processing finds out when and why you might specify metal or plastic conveyor belts. 

For decades both metal and plastic conveyor belts have been used on processing and packaging lines to move food products safely, quickly and efficiently around a plant. 

“Often, both metal and plastic belts are utilised on the same production line to take advantage of their associated strengths and benefits,” said Gerben Schreiber, vice president international sales for Rexnord Process and Motion Control, a manufacturer of conveyor belts and components.

“Metal belts are traditionally more closely associated with the process side of production,” said Tracy Tyler, president and CEO of Cambridge Engineered Solutions, a manufacturer of metal conveyor belts. “Stainless steel belts can withstand elevated temperatures for cooking and baking and provide an excellent, non-porous sanitary surface. Further, metal belts are unaffected by sparks, incendiaries, open flames and excessive heat.”

Metal is also considered to be a better solution for lines which involve freezing processes, which would otherwise crack and break plastic belts.

For bakery and packaged food applications that traditionally use spiral cage conveyors, metal belt manufacturers are developing new products to meet the increasing use of cageless systems which can go places where traditional spirals cannot be accommodated – including tighter spaces and around building columns.

“Today’s belts are designed with tighter turning radiuses, and instead of using cages, sprockets drive the belt on its edge,” explained Tyler. “We are also focused on allowing our customers to specify spiral belt opening widths at the time of factory production to achieve the correct support, air-flow and strength-to-weight ratio for specific baked goods and packaged foods.”

Metal belts also play an important role as food processors – particularly those in Europe – put a higher priority on food safety. “Unlike many plastic options, stainless belts are resistant to the sanitising chemicals that help prevent food-borne illness outbreaks,” said Tyler. “They can also be heated well above temperatures that bacteria can survive.”
Modular plastic belts meet the requirements for moving products in a safe and efficient way. They are used for nearly every type of food processing and packaging, including baked goods, snack foods, confectionary items, meat and poultry, seafood and fruits and vegetables.
A variety of plastic options are available to meet these applications. They include belts made of polyethylene (best suited for lower temperatures), polypropylene (for higher temperatures) and polyacetal (typically used for packaging lines).

“Modular belts can be more quickly assembled and disassembled for cleaning which helps to minimise downtime in the plant,” said Schreiber. “It is easy to open and close the conveyor with plastic belts, which is particularly useful for stand-up conveyors and other lines that have frequent cleaning requirements.”

In general, modular belts also weigh less and consume less energy and a host of new product developments for conveying packaged foods, in particular, are contributing to these savings, employee safety and consumer product integrity.

 “Food end-users are upgrading their conveyors for packaged foods from roller technology (metal rollers) to low back line pressure modular systems (plastic mattop),” said Schreiber.

“This results in less energy consumption and noise, creates smaller transfers between conveyors verses traditional rollers, and it addresses safety issues. Last but not least, it avoids the risk that packaged foods arrive in your supermarket damaged.”  

Conveyor belt trends
As more food processors focus on reducing operating expenses, Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is becoming a more important consideration. Instead of just looking at upfront cost and expenses, food processors need to evaluate their overall costs for maintenance, cleaning, repair and replacement. 

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