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Quiches packed for good

28 November 2012

Mitsubishi Electric UK and Western Mechanical Handling have worked together to ensure that quiches can be carefully packaged

Great packaging stories are a dime a dozen; every day, it seems, somebody somewhere is coming up with an innovation to cut packaging waste or make it more attractive to potential consumers.

Substantial amounts of money are invested in ensuring packaging is in tune with the demands of the retailers. Recent statistics show the UK foodservice packaging sector is valued at an estimated £800, and that as much as 10% of overall energy used in the food chain goes to produce packaging.

Then there’s the statistic that indicates 400,000 tonnage of avoidable food waste was thrown away by the UK hospitality sector in 2009. Clearly this topic needs to be addressed.

A recent case study from Mitsubishi Electric UK indicates machinery suppliers are taking note of this message. Western Mechanical Handling (WMH) of Callington in Cornwall designs and builds production machinery to handle delicate product that requires careful but high-speed handling.

WMH’s automation department, WMH Automation, uses Mitsubishi Electric precision servo drives, which it finds help it when making equipment to deal with uncooked quiches.

These are difficult to handle because the filling is liquid and the raw pastry is soft. When manufactured in commercial volumes they need to be moved quickly through the production process, so are in danger of collapsing and thus disrupting production.

Previously, an aluminium foil dish was used to hold each quiche as it was made and cooked. The quiches could be handled relatively robustly, bumping against the side of various machines and often being bunched together against a stop bar at the end of a continuously running conveyor. The dish then became part of the final packaging; often the quiche had the double protection of the dish and an outer cardboard box or sleeve.

However, as environmental issues become increasingly sensitive, consumers have begun to demand less packaging. In the case of quiches and similar products there is a move to paper flan dishes, similar to but larger than those used for cupcakes and muffins. The dilemma for many food manufacturers is that customers still expect the product to be pristine and undamaged on shop-shelves.

"We’ve addressed this issue several times for different customers," says Matt Hurley of WMH. "We’ve developed concepts that can be adapted for different applications. The quiche project gave us a chance to perfect so-called pressureless queuing or collating. In fact it is applicable to any product, pies and pizzas for instance, although it could also be used way beyond the food industry."

WMH’s challenge was collecting randomly arriving raw quiches into neat rows of set numbers with orderly spacing between them so they can be transferred onto a conveyor oven for cooking.

The solution was an inline servo-controlled collating conveyor and intelligent sensing system. Quiches are delivered to this from the main conveyor at random time intervals, the sensors identify the position of the next quiche on the main conveyor, calculate the time until its delivery and adjust the collating conveyor to optimise the spacing between the quiches. If there is a long wait until the next quiche arrives, the collating conveyor will pause.

When a line of quiches is complete they’re transferred laterally into the oven, through which they pass to emerge cooked, then proceed into a freezer to reduce their temperature ready for wrapping and boxing up.

"Like all the best machine designs the principle is simple. This means we can easily adapt it or add in some extra capabilities for specific applications," explains Matt. "For the quiche job, the collator is actually made up of three smaller independently controlled conveyors."

Each of these is driven by a Mitsubishi HF-KP73 servomotor and associated MR-J3-70B servo amplifier and co-ordinated by a Q-series controllers.

Mitsubishi recognises servo drive systems are used for many different tasks, from simple repetitive point-to-point programmes of moderate accuracy to fully synchronised multi-axis applications where live data feeds are constantly resetting operational requirements. To this end it offers a wide range of servo options, including its SSCNET bus controller.

The HF-KP73 motors used by WMH, for example, are low inertia units that respond well to rapid changes in speed and are energy efficient. As loads in the quiche project are predictable, small and don’t fluctuate much low inertia motors are ideal; high inertia motors tend to be used where speeds and loads fluctuate more. (To read the complete case study, visit www.fponthenet.net).

‘’It would be easy to say food producers require machines that deliver faster machine cycles, greater flexibility and higher accuracy, all delivered using the lowest amount of energy and without any doubt they do but the question is much broader than that,’’ says Chris Evans, marketing & operations group manager, Mitsubishi Electric.

‘’Many machine builders say they’re sometimes frustrated they’re not involved earlier in the process when solutions to new manufacturing processes or products are discussed. Early knowledge of the physical environment, product variants and so on, can affect the machine design process and can be easily incorporated if they’re known up-front.

‘’The real issue is the communication between the machine builder and the food producer, at the early stages of the project is absolutely vital and can always be improved.

‘’In the past, machine builders, quite understandably, would be reluctant to add features such as recorded machine production and efficiency data, if this resulted in extra hardware and engineering costs, unless the food producer specifically asked for it.

‘’Recent advances in automation technology and partnering with an automation supplier that understands the requirements, can offer these features at minimum extra cost to the machine builder and to the benefit of the food producer.

‘’Another area often overlooked at the expense of the initial cost of the machine, is the whole life cost of maintaining and running the machine over the asset life. Machine builders should choose an automation platform with a high reliability track record and legacy migration policy to offer peace of mind and longevity to food producer customers.

‘’In the end it’s the relationship between the food producer, the machine builder and their automation supplier, based on trust, industry knowledge and experience that will deliver major benefits for all parties.’’

Rob Stephens, MD of Systems Integration says because food processing is such a large industry and therefore an important market target for machinery suppliers, tough legislation for packaging waste and labelling mean it's important for machinery to integrate with the different solutions found in food production environments.

"As a software house that specialises in working with food processing businesses, we often need to analyse the data provided by a range of machinery from different suppliers. By making sure the data collected by their machinery is easy to extract, suppliers will have a strong selling point when targeting the food processing industry."

"Measuring production allows food processors to plan and manage their packaging requirements. Our dry goods and packaging waste software works by gathering data from different machinery, saving time and money. It also increases accuracy when compared with manual data collection."

"Processors have a clear view of what packaging they have and what they need to purchase to meet orders. They’re also able to easily meet legislation such as the Producer Responsibility Obligations because our software automatically reports on all the necessary information."

"Label accuracy is particularly important for food processing businesses as requirements can cover country/ocean of origin, allergen controls and information specific to ethical and organic products. It is therefore essential for machinery suppliers to ensure it's easy for third party software and hardware to communicate with their products and extract data to analyse and report on."


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