Greg Sharp, Engineering Manager at Tsubakimoto UK, looks at the challenges and offers some solutions based on past projects and his company’s regular R&D advances.
The production intensity of the food and beverage processing industries, which simultaneously needs speed, efficiency and hygiene, leaves little room for unplanned maintenance of plant and machinery.
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 so that delivery of the finished product meets supermarkets’ demanding schedules. Both retailers and consumers insist that both product and packaging are perfect in every way. Then, on top of all this, there has to be a tremendous focus on hygiene at all times.
A lot of food processing machinery includes chain drives, which are favoured because they are efficient in use, maintain precision and are suitable for both high and low speed applications. Further, chains are relatively easy to fit, maintain and eventually to replace at the end of their life.
However, using chain drives within food plants presents some challenges that need to be addressed. 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 copious amounts of water, any of which could be harmful to chain by washing out the lubricant and encouraging corrosion.
There are also other problems relating to lubrication. For instance, lubricant can 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 general appearance. Alternatively, food may contaminate 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 often 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.
Any of these problems can lead to downtime, in which production has to stop while chain is re-lubricated, adjusted or fixed. This can often be a major issue because food plants tend to have to run almost continuously between planned maintenance periods in order to meet production and delivery schedules. Further, an unplanned stoppage could easily result in food being over-cooked, melting or otherwise becoming unusable, so there are wastage and disposal costs to consider.