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Linking chain technology and productivity gains

21 January 2018

The production intensity of food and beverage processing leaves little room for unplanned maintenance of plant and machinery. Greg Sharp offers some advice on increasing uptime. 

Food and drink processing is usually high speed, and often done in relatively small production batches. Typically there is also pressure to meet a deadline coupled with a need for consistency of product and packaging and a focus on hygiene at all times.

Food processing machinery often includes chain drives, which are efficient in use, maintain precision and are suitable for both high and low speed applications. Chains are also relatively easy to fit, maintain and eventually to replace at the end of their life.

However, the use of chain drives within food plants does present some challenges. Perhaps the most obvious one is that of washing down the production machinery, which often involves steam cleaning. The use of caustic cleaning fluids and/or water can be harmful to chain by washing out its lubricant and encouraging corrosion.

There are other problems relating to lubrication. Lubricant can, for example, migrate from the chain onto the food products or its packaging. Such contamination will look unsightly and not be saleable. Even small trace amounts could contaminate the food or compromise its appearance. Alternatively, food may contaminate the lubricant and compromise its effectiveness – causing premature failure of the chain.

Another issue with food processing machinery is that its design is usually optimised to make the production processes as easily accessible as possible. Unfortunately, this can mean that sub-systems such as chain drives are far less accessible and typically below the production surfaces. Thus they are susceptible to food waste and cleaning agents falling on them and may also be checked less often than they should.

Leading to downtime?
Any of these problems can lead to downtime, while chain is re-lubricated, adjusted or fixed. Unplanned stoppages can result in food being over-cooked, melting or otherwise becoming unusable, so there are wastage and disposal costs to consider.

Some food and beverage OEMs and end users have been tempted to specify low cost chains, treating it as a short-life disposable item that will need to be replaced relatively often. However, this can be a false economy. While the chain is cheaper, it requires more maintenance, is more likely to cause unplanned stoppages and ultimately needs replacing more often.

Almost inevitably, cheaper chains will have a higher Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), whereas specifying premium chains, that which have been designed for the environment in which they are to work, will usually offer cost savings over the life of the chain.

Tsubaki, for example, has developed two specialist ranges of chain for food industry applications – Lambda RS and Neptune. Both are fairly new products and their development has, in part, been an evolutionary process from earlier specialist chains.

Lambda chain has been developed for use in locations where it is difficult, impossible or undesirable to apply lubrication in-situ. A key feature is its sintered bushes which are impregnated with oil during manufacture so do not need lubricating once installed.

Ever since Tsubaki launched the world’s first lube-free industrial drive chain onto the market, its benefits have been well documented. The latest generation of Lambda is lubricated with a special food grade lubricant as standard. While food grade lubricant has been available as an option for many years, this development has improved Lambda’s wear life by more than 30%.

Evolved from the successful N.E.P. series, Neptune is a high-strength carbon steel chain treated with a two-layer coating for increased corrosion resistance. The top coat protects the chain from physical impact and forms the front line defence against corrosive agents. Many anti-corrosion treatments use high temperature plating processes which can reduce component hardness and strength. In contrast, Neptune chain has the same tensile strength and maximum allowable tension as the standard carbon steel chains in the range.

Beneath the top coat is a base coat of zinc which provides a sacrificing function to prevent oxidisation of the chain parts. Neptune chain is chromium-free and environmentally safe making it suited to use in industries that are already phasing out hexavalent chromium from their plant due to its carcinogenic properties.

Neptune has been developed for use in the presence of harsh chemicals. In salt water spray tests conducted during its development, it showed no sign of rust at all for over 500 hours. Further, even after extensive spraying, rust development was very much slower than with other chain. Tests show that it is twice as resistant to rust as conventional zinc coated chain and ten times better than nickel plated chain.

Real-life examples?
A large confectionary manufacturer experienced difficulties on a conveyor used to transport chocolate moulds. The problem was analysed as chocolate mixing with the lubricant and effectively solidifying it. This prevented the lubricant from penetrating into the bearing areas of the chain, which lad to wear and corrosion of the pin surface and eventually to chain elongation. This meant the passage of the moulds became less smooth and ultimately they began crashing into one another, which could result in production stoppages.

This problem was resolved when ‘lube-free’ Lambda chain was employed to replace the existing chain. The lubricating effect of the oil impregnated bushes last for the lifetime of the chain, meaning that no external lubrication is necessary. As only a small but optimal amount of lubricant is gradually released from the bushing, oil splashing and migration are no longer problems.

Neptune is also offering a solution in applications where salt is present and where a sanitary wash down is part of the production process.

It is, for example, being used by Proseal, a manufacturer of tray sealing machines for the food industry, who says it lasts at least 50% longer than any other chain it has tried. It withstands the caustic soda and jet washing routines used in food environments and typically continues to perform without issue.

Another food industry application was on a frozen noodle conveyor. Here the conveyor requires a complete wash-down between batches because different products may be conveyed each time. Chemicals are used during this wash-down and while the chain in the drive section is covered, cleaning water and chemicals sometimes splash onto the chain. Previously fitted chains proved less than satisfactory, but with Neptune wash-downs can be carried out without worrying about the chain.

Dairy application
?In another application, at a French dairy, crates used to store and transport cheese around the factory are regularly washed automatically. The crates are conveyed into a machine that produces a vigorous washing cycle using hot water and chemical cleaners. Unfortunately, the washing machine has no automatic chain lubricating system and it was not possible to lubricate the chain manually. The result was that the pins and chain itself both quickly began to stiffen; corrosion and elongation soon began to take hold with resultant misalignment problems. The solution here was founds with a lube-free chain with the corrosion resistant properties of Neptune, which has lasted twice as long as the previous chain and has also improved the overall running of the equipment.

Meat processing facilities also have rigorous cleaning regimes. In Germany a conveying system equipped with nickel plated, lubricated chain had to be laboriously removed and replaced every nine months. Making this process even more time-consuming, the new chain also had to be lubricated in situ. Once again the plant switched to Neptune. As a result corrosion reduced while the no lube regime reduced the maintenance requirement and the time between chain replacements was extended.

Chain may look very similar to its counterparts, but continuous research and development in areas like lubrication, metallurgy and coatings means that the technology surrounding it is advancing rapidly.

There is a quantitate calculation that can be used to show the relative merits of high and low cost chains, removing the un-measurable concept of ‘perceived quality’. This calculation measures the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of a chain over its entire working life, taking into account purchase price, installation cost, maintenance costs and removal costs.

Chain manufacturers who understand the industries in which their products are used should be able to assess individual requirements and offer solutions which last much times longer than budget chain – easily leading to significant savings over the life of the product and reducing unexpected production downtimes.

Greg Sharp is engineering manager at Tsubakimoto UK.

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