Tortilla Processing: Flat and Flattering
September 01, 2009
by Shane Whitaker
Tortillas are no longer just relegated to Mexican food. A few years ago McDonald’s restaurants introduced a snack wrap, which proved to be a popular new menu item. Other quick-service restaurants (QSR) have followed suit, and today, virtually every one offers some sandwich-type product made using a flour tortilla or flatbread.
Food service customers generally have tighter specifications for their products than tortilla manufacturers may have traditionally experienced when producing for retail. When a QSR wants an 8-in. wrap, its tolerances are likely to be less than what a tortilla processor may be used to producing for its retail products. And because of this, tortilla manufacturers desire equipment that can assist them in producing more consistent products.
Consistency, greater throughputs and labor savings are the three qualities that tortilla manufacturers are most often requesting from new tortilla systems, according to Kyle Armstrong, sales manager, J.C. Ford Co., La Habra, CA.
Glenn Shelton, vice-president, sales, Lawrence Equipment, South El Monte, CA, agreed with this assessment, noting that equipment manufacturers have “to enable the producer to achieve a tighter spec control at higher speeds with less labor.”
To help processors achieve these goals, Lawrence introduced a new vacuum-head press that can be shimmed in small increments very quickly, according to Mr. Shelton. The 1-Touch Quick Shim upgrade is available for both its Legend 42 and Mega 52 systems, and it provides the producer with Teflon-coated pressing skins that retain the ideal shim pattern/program array that a producer makes. The major advantage of this new system is that processors can feather in the exact amount of shimming they need to make more consistent product because of the very thin special alloy aluminum sheets used, he explained.
Because a press continually heats and cools, the press head distorts over time, and those presses with larger plates will have greater distortion that creates dimensional variations to products. If a processor has the ability to mitigate that by putting in shims and leveling out plates from time to time, then it can produce more consistent product. Lawrence’s new patent-pending solution allows them to do this in a matter of minutes.
The uniquely fabricated main upper press platen used in the 1-Touch Quick Shim features vacuum assist against which the skin is secure, and the Teflon-coated skins are pre-indicated for precise location of shim by diameter and program array. A variety of circular shims of varying thickness and diameter are available for precision adjustment and enhanced heat transfer, and changeover time between skins is two minutes. In addition, simple onscreen commands assist operators in making changeovers to the skins, and a 3-point alignment system assures the skin is properly squared to the upper pressing head for secure attachment.
“We are talking about ability to dial in shimming precisely,” Mr. Shelton said. “Once it is done, you don’t have to compromise on anything, and you can use a special pressing skin with different array that is tailored for your press and for your diameter. It only takes a couple of minutes to change a skin and optimize for 5-, 8-, 10- or 12-in. products. We can dial that in and repeat that each and every time.”
To improve the throughput of its flour tortilla systems, J.C. Ford introduced a continuous press, where the press head moves back and forth. The head follows the dough balls that have been loaded onto the Teflon-coated press, according to Mr. Armstrong. “Where our competitors’ press heads are sitting still, and they accelerate the conveyor belt and stop and press and accelerate out, our press head continuously moves,” he observed. “We get higher throughputs because it makes more strokes per minute. We also get smoother product flow into the oven. We also don’t have gaps of wasted space in the oven.”
J.C. Ford’s new continuous press lines can produce up to 2,400 doz 6-in. tortillas per hour, according to Mr. Armstrong.
J.C. Ford also now offers vision inspection systems to monitor tortilla sizes and shapes. “They reject tortillas that don’t fall within the parameters of the customer or the producer, and that automates the back end of the line,” he said. “They also give trending reports as to what is happening on the lines, and that, in turn, lets the operators make adjustments to make more consistent products.”
Lawrence is preparing to release its latest vision system, the Accuview III. For the first time in the 10 years the company has offered vision inspection, Accuview III will connect to the Ethernet highway that unites the line from the divider through the counter/stacker. The recipe-driven line will be able to download all the parameters that the vision system will be inspecting. The Accuview will also have the ability to gather data for each press head position and can tell the operator exactly what to do to improve the quality of products being produced by the line.
Accuview is able to measure products within a thousandth of an inch, and it is able to inspect every product that is made on a line. “It is going to allow the operator to do his job of producing the highest yield at with lower waste,” Mr. Shelton pointed out.
Additionally, companies are starting to focus a lot more on environmental concerns, according to Mr. Armstrong. Local, state and federal governments are offering incentives to make plants more energy efficient, thus J.C. Ford is looking to make its equipment consume less gas and electricity. “As far as our tortilla ovens, we are starting to use hot exhaust air to heat water for corn cooking systems,” he noted. “We are also using more energy efficient components on our lines.”
Increasing throughput is important for manufacturers of corn tortillas, and J.C. Ford’s latest corn tortilla line is capable of producing up to 7,000 doz per hour. Many manufacturers are replacing smaller lines to be more competitive in the market, according to Mr. Armstrong.
The supplier can generate greater throughputs on its corn tortilla lines by increasing the width of the line and the length of the oven. Most lines now are producing six rows of products as opposed to four, Mr. Armstrong pointed out.
Heat and Control, Hayward, CA, offers Paragon Sheeters, which produce uniform corn tortillas and chips with minimal adjustment and maintenance. The sheeter, which is available with rollers up to 58-in. wide, features a rugged construction to prevents roller movements that cause variations in product piece-weight. Large diameter rollers are mounted between thick stainless steel side frames to maintain stability over years of operation, and differential roller speeds provide clean product transfer using only one stripping wire, which is pneumatically tensioned for long life.
To increase throughput, rollers can be removed in only minutes, instead of hours. And the unique roller-contoured conveyor belt prevents product foldovers and stress fractures. Gear drives eliminate the maintenance required by other sheeters using drive belts, sprockets and chains, and its open-frame construction greatly reduces cleaning time.
For improved sanitation of tortilla systems, most everything is made using stainless steel and some, but not all lines, are USDA-washdown compliant, according to Mr. Shelton. He pointed out that virtually every processor wants its tortilla lines to be washdown, but they don’t want suppliers to charge more for it. However, there is definitely a push for greater sanitation of systems, he concluded.
J.C. Ford has taken a lot of time to ensure its systems have washdown areas and to design off-board controls so that the lines can be washed down for greater sanitation.
So whether a baker makes corn or flour tortillas, chapatti, roti, naan or wraps, the latest systems are designed to deliver greater throughput with tighter tolerances, allowing processors to meet specifications set by customers who desire product that is more consistent. Also, lines with greater throughput allow processors to enjoy labor savings, something every processor wants.