Tortilla Processing: Bottom Line Benefits
New equipment allows processors greater consistency and flexibility while reducing downtime and maintenance issues.
BakingBusiness.com, Aug. 1, 2011
by Shane Whitaker
A decade ago, the tortilla market was expanding so fast producers didn’t worry about accuracy, according to Bruce Campbell, vice-president, dough processing technologies, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA. “Now that they need to fight for bottom line profit growth, they are looking at efficiency, and the inaccuracy and maintenance problems of the existing technology is making them consider new technology to help,” he said.

Because tortilla sales continue to increase, Kyle Armstrong, sales manager, J.C. Ford Co., La Habra, CA, pointed out, it’s putting stress on producers and equipment. “We’ve developed new systems to help the tortilla producers deliver the volume the market is demanding with the consistency that is needed,” he said.

To meet consumer demand, producers are producing greater varieties of tortillas. In response, equipment companies must develop continuous processing technologies that allow operators to easily change from one variety to another with the touch of a formulation management button.

Caleb Reyes, regional sales manager for corn products systems, Heat and Control, Inc., Hayward, CA, noted, “Tortilla processors are installing equipment systems to produce ever-higher capacities. They are also struggling to maintain prices despite rising ingredient costs, and this means those equipment lines and their control systems must provide highly
efficient operation.”

Whether producing flour or corn tortillas or even tortilla chips, producers can choose from a variety of new systems designed to improve efficiency, accuracy and product quality as well as reduce downtime and maintenance.

FLOUR FOCUS.

For the most part, tortilla producers still use older dividing technology, Mr. Campbell said, noting that the bread and bun industry was in a similar position 25 years ago. “Now the largest and most profitable bakers use new extrusion-style technology,” he observed. “So tortilla producers need to recognize that it is inevitable, and if they want to compete, they must improve the efficiency of their divider/rounder operations.”

The throughput of AMF’s new KX-T continuous divider/rounder is equal to that of two older divider/rounders at less than half the cost, Mr. Campbell said. “Portion accuracy is better, and it does not require major rebuilds on the divider every two years like European-style divider/rounders,” he added. “The KX-T is available in multiple-pocket configurations from four to six to eight and even nine pockets.”

Casa Herrera, Pomona, CA, also offers extrusion dividers with up to nine ports, but Ron Meade, the company’s CEO, spoke eagerly about newer, more robust PLC systems that provide much greater real-time feedback on tortilla lines. “The human-machine interface features are getting friendlier all the time,” Mr. Meade said. “The troubleshooting features are a tremendous benefit and help detect fuse failures and other internal electrical issues that had to be diagnosed through time-consuming inspections by a plant maintenance engineer in the past. This capability dramatically reduces downtime for a production line.”

Although flour tortillas can be die-cut or hand-stretched, most wholesale producers rely on tortilla presses, which use heated platens to flatten dough balls. However, the heated platen on a press can warp or deflect over time, and tortilla producers often have to shim the press to ensure the tortillas’ diameters remain in spec.

After two years in development, Casa Herrera’s Genesis 52 flour tortilla press comes with a new hydraulic system and controls and doesn’t require shimming, according to Mr. Meade. “We control the speed of the cylinders, the gap of the pressing plate and the individual 4-corner adjustments on the fly, with the touch of a button,” he said. “To my knowledge, we are the only manufacturer that offers this feature.”

The hydraulic system uses linear transducers on cylinders to allow repeatability and exact location of the press platen, and operators can adjust any of the four corners of the 52-in.-by-52-in. press by 1/1,000th of an inch. “We can accomplish changes on the fly that would typically create a period of downtime,” Mr. Meade observed.

He also noted that this is the largest press the company has manufactured, and in the past, Casa Herrera had been reluctant to build a press of this size because of its inherent problems and need for shimming. “Through some research and development, we were able to come up with something we feel was a real enhancement to anyone running tortilla presses,” Mr. Meade said.

Lawrence Equipment, South El Monte, CA, recently introduced divider and press enhancements created in part to improve the producer’s capacity to make a wider variety of products while keeping waste at 1% or 2% and without compromising speeds, according to Glenn Shelton, vice-president of sales and marketing. A patent-pending vacuum head design allows producers to quickly replace a pressing plate so it can be better optimized for the products they want to make. Lawrence has also developed a Mega press with an extended infeed to accommodate two prepress programs simultaneously.

J.C. Ford introduced a press that incorporates its “no shim” system for making quick, easy adjustments to individual tortillas or areas of the press pattern, according to Mr. Armstrong. “This system uses a series of jacking bolts located in the frame above the top platen that are used to apply pressure to different areas of the press platen, making the product under it slightly larger or smaller,” he said. “With this new system, the manufacturer can easily produce a wide array of consistent products.”

Its press also uses continuous pressing technology, enabling a simpler loading system that incorporates all the equipment needed for various patterns. “This allows the manufacturer to make quick changeovers without the need to remove/install additional equipment or parts.” Mr. Armstrong added.

CONTROLLING COSTS.

As for corn tortillas or chips, producers desire increased throughput with greater consistency, according to Mr. Armstrong. “Product thickness is crucial for producing quality product,” he said. “Varying thicknesses will change the end product drastically. For fried chips, it will affect the blistering in the oven, which then changes the characteristics after the fryer and eventually the bag presentation because of varying density. For table tortillas, it will change the way the tortilla separates in the oven and can cause too much or not enough puffing. Also, product that is too thick or heavy can affect the bottom line, and increased ingredient costs make it more important than ever to not give away more than the consumer is buying.”

To this end, J.C. Ford recently introduced its Cam Force sheeter with automatic thickness control (ATC) system. “This new sheeter uses an eccentric roller positioning system that gives the operator greater control over the roller gap,” Mr. Armstrong explained. “The Cam Force sheeter is also available with an optional ATC system that uses lasers to monitor the product thickness and then automatically adjust the roller gap accordingly using servo motors.”

Heat and Control’s most recent high-speed, high-capacity corn tortilla production lines can produce up to 8,000 dozen per hour, according to Mr. Reyes. The line — which includes a masa sheeter, feed conveyor, toaster oven, conditioning conveyor and controls — produces consistent-quality tortillas and maintains high operating efficiency, he noted. “Additionally, being able to rely on one supplier for an integrated line reduces equipment compatibility and service delays for processors,” Mr. Reyes said.

To increase market share, he said several tortilla producers are offering fried tortilla products such as tostadas, tortilla chips and even taco shells. Heat and Control’s small- and high-
capacity frying systems produce tostadas and chips using the same fryer. “Again, the advantage is production flexibility, increased sales and the ability to spread equipment and operating costs over several product lines,” Mr. Reyes observed.

Lawrence’s new state-of-the-art 6-row corn tortilla line produces uniformly baked, soft corn tortillas from corn masa at 51% moisture. It can produce up to 5,800 dozen per hour with a fully automatic counting stacking, vision system and stack indexer, Mr. Shelton said.

To obtain high efficiency and consistent product quality, processors need to communicate with the production line. “We have developed a line monitoring platform called Information That Matters that provides real-time data on equipment control points, key performance indicators and notification of faults via smartphone or computer,” Mr. Reyes said. “This gets the right information to the right people so equipment adjustments or repairs can be made very quickly to maintain high overall equipment effectiveness.”

Also, the tortilla industry, like many industries, understands the need to lower energy costs. Earlier this year, J.C. Ford released its first all-infrared oven that is designed to use less gas at the burner and retain more of the heat that’s been generated. “This is all in an effort to reduce gas usage and therefore the cost to produce products,” Mr. Armstrong said.

STACKING FOR PACKING.

High-speed lines can produce tens of thousands of tortillas per hour, yet packaging has often been a bottleneck to operations. However, with the addition of automated quality control and counter/stackers, plants can increase packaging rates and reduce labor.

Kevin Pearson, vice-president, Arr-Tech, Yakima, WA, said that despite its automated systems’ ability to reduce labor in packaging rooms by up to 50 to 70%, the biggest return for producers is the fact they can increase production on their makeup equipment. “Another benefit is much greater product hygiene because you don’t have people touching every stack, so the risk of contaminating product goes way down,” he said.

Arr-Tech’s stacking towers feature linear servos, which use magnetic force so there is no metal-on-metal contact or material wear. “We have worked diligently to develop our systems so that operators using standard preventive maintenance don’t have a lot to worry about as far as breakdowns or excessive maintenance,” Mr. Pearson said. “We use pre-lubed, high-quality bearings. We don’t use roller chains; it’s all timing-belt drive systems, which last and last and last.”

Producers have a lot to consider when looking to improve the accuracy, efficiency and output of their flour and corn tortilla lines. That’s because today’s equipment is designed to require less maintenance and give processors greater flexibili