Today’s high-speed automated bakeries and snack manufacturing plants rely upon conveying systems to transport materials through most processing stages and packaging. Conveyors and belting materials serve as the highways and byways for transporting everything from ingredients to finished packaged goods.

Because of the proliferation of dough chunkers and continuous mixing systems, heavy-duty conveyors are necessary to move large pieces of dough to hoppers that feed dividers and sheeting systems. Whether spiral, serpentine or tunnel, continuous-style ovens require conveyorized mechanisms to move pans or free-standing loaves, buns or cookies through the baking process. To keep the process uninterrupted, cooling conveyors are often employed and can take spiraling and cascading configurations to save valuable floor space.

Just as commuters fume at road closures that cause delays, bakers want to avoid interruptions of their conveying systems. Detour routes can be much more difficult to find on a plant’s conveying system than on roadways. Similarly, sanitation and maintenance of these systems are absolute necessities, but minimizing the disruption to regular service is paramount.

“The two biggest challenges bakers and snack manufacturers face are maintaining their equipment to prevent potential downtime and designing equipment to facilitate cleaning and sanitation,” said Kenneth King, commercial support manager, Ashworth Bros., Winchester, VA.

Driving innovation

Bakeries and snack manufacturers are constantly looking to increase production of high-quality, consistent products, and to this end, the durability and reliability of conveyor belts is an important issue.

“Today’s consumer expectations are focused on food safety, product quality and affordability,” Mr. King said.

To maintain brand loyalty, he noted, bakers have adapted to consumer expectations by requiring conveyor belting and equipment manufacturers to develop reliable, easily sanitized and durable equipment to handle increased product loads. Mr. King explained that Ashworth continues to innovate products such as its Fatigue Resistant Cleatrac and Small Radius Omni-Pro systems.

“Our new Small Radius Omni-Pro ¾-in. pitch belt extends the Omni-Pro line of spiral and turn-curve conveyor belts,” Mr. King explained, noting that the belt minimizes cage bar wear, maintenance cost and downtime in demanding high-tension spiral and turn-curve applications.

The company created its Fatigue-Resistant Cleatrac system using a new manufacturing process that features proprietary stainless steel specification, enabling Ashworth to produce a belt that is 2.5 times stronger than its standard Cleatrac system, he said. Therefore, the belt handles heavier loads in dryers, coolers, tunnel freezers and ovens, Mr. King observed.

New materials being used for Intralox’s plastic modular belting represent additional developments in conveyor belting, according to Don Osborne, snack team leader, Europe for the Harahan, LA-based company. Its latest offerings include nylon-based fire-retardant belts as well as plastic belts that don’t absorb water. “Because of the hygroscopic nature of some materials, they don’t lend themselves to certain sanitation methods,” he noted. “But we have developed some materials that don’t absorb water.”

Food safety is the hottest of all hot buttons for bakery and snack plants, thus making cleanability of conveyors and belts and avoidance of contamination from foreign objects crucial, Mr. Osborne said. “We have a dedicated team that will consult with customers on how to improve the food safety of their processes,” he noted. “Our engineers help OEMs design conveyors so that they are easier to clean and still safe for employees to work around.”

In addition to its plastic modular belts, Intralox offers 100% closed-surface ThermoDrive belts for plants that need an even higher level of sanitation. The sprocket-driven belting is quickly and easily cleaned, reducing changeover times in plants, Mr. Osborne observed.

Fire safety is a huge concern for many bakers, according to Dave Machette, national account and marketing specialist, Stewart Systems Baking LLC, Plano, TX. The company now more often equips its systems with self-extinguishing nylon belting.

It’s not uncommon for a tortilla or English muffin to come out of the oven or off the griddle on fire, Mr. Osborne said. If the belt isn’t flame retardant, it can create a major issue.

Modular plastic belt conveyors from Stewart Systems use a common cross-platform design. This approach addresses many of the issues bakers have with food safety, liabilities, reliability and getting the best bang for their buck, according to Mr. Machette. “Stewart Systems fully assembles conveyors, tests them and minimally disassembles them for shipping reasons,” he said. “This ensures ease and lowered labor costs during the installation phase.”

Also, Stewart Systems’ modular belt conveyors feature an open design with minimal horizontal surfaces to reduce the possibility of debris buildup and improve sanitation, Mr. Machette said. Such low-maintenance designs include quick-release, direct-shaft-mounted gear motors.

Reversing downtime

To increase production and reduce downtime, Berndorf Belt Technology USA follows a unique manufacturing process that runs baking bands in endless condition between two drums, providing longer belt life, according to Daniela Weiszhar, marketing manager for the Elgin, IL-based supplier. “Furthermore, Berndorf’s production process ensures flat belts with a dark, uniform belt surface resulting in high-quality end products,” she said.

During manufacture of Berndorf’s Carbo 13 belt, the steel goes through a complex heat treatment process to achieve the required tensile strength and surface composition. “Carbo 13 with its dark black surface, good acceptance of radiant heat, high thermal conductivity and low thermal expansion is a reliable base for bakery products,” Ms. Weizhar observed.

To increase production, she noted that bakers demand conveyor belts wider than the traditional 39 to 47 in. (1,000 to 1,200 mm) widths. To this end, Berndorf Band Engineering GmbH, Berndorf, Austria, has supplied nearly 94-in.-wide (2,380-mm-wide) belts, Ms. Weizhar explained.

Additionally, the new Bernmatic BTRV belt tracking roller from Berndorf Band Engineering offers continuous belt monitoring to ensure precise belt tracking. The compact belt tracking roller integrates easily into existing systems and reduces downtime thanks to optimal belt guidance, she noted.

Positive-drive belt designs eliminate belt tracking and tensioning issues, two of the most common concerns with conveyors, according to Terry Bartsch, vice-president, sales, Shaffer-Bundy Baking Solutions, Urbana, OH.

Use of a direct-drive design allows many new features including local electrical disconnects and variable-speed operation, Mr. Bartsch explained. “In addition, a direct-drive design eliminates mechanical parts such as belts, chains and sprockets, decreasing maintenance requirements and failure points,” he noted.

Providing electrical disconnects at each motor rather than one in a remote location, Mr. Bartsch said, is safer and makes performing maintenance and sanitation on a conveyor more convenient because operators do not have to turn off all conveyors in a line to do these procedures. “Variable-speed conveyor drives give bakeries the ability to fine-tune conveyor speeds to meet other equipment speeds and make the bakery operate efficiently,” he added.

Speeding up sanitation

New Versa-Link conveyor belts from Wire Belt Co. of America use less energy than other flat wire belts because they have a much lower profile, according to Rick Spiak, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Londonderry, NH-based belting manufacturer. “This design also has very little oil carryout in the fryer,” he added.

Introduced in 2012, Versa-Link is a miniature flat wire belt with a pitch height of ? or ½ in., yet it offers solid support for all kinds of baked foods, including rolls and sweet goods. Also, its open structure makes it a good option for enrobing lines, Mr. Spiak said.

In addition, the belt’s Advanced Link Rods require no special tools or welding and connect to the belt in the center, leaving no weak points in the connection, he noted.

Mr. Spiak touted the sanitation benefits of the company’s wire belts, noting that with new food safety regulations, the baker’s ability to thoroughly and quickly clean conveyor belts was only going to gain importance. The company’s belts, he said, can be washed down using clean-in-place systems so belts do not have to be removed, which reduces downtime.

Walker Original Washdown (WOW) conveyors from Walker Custom Sheet Metal, Grand Rapids, MI, feature an sanitary tool-less design. Available through a partnership with its sister company Eagan Food Technologies, the conveyor meets new strict sanitation requirements, according to Jim Monaweck, project manager at Walker.

The WOW conveyors not only take less time to disassemble but also require fewer chemicals because there are no food harborage sites, he said, which also makes it easier to visually inspect after cleaning. The conveyors feature a rounded-tube frame design and are available in many configurations such as trough-style, flat-belt, inclining and Z-style assemblies.

Current advances in conveyors and belting options focus on keeping systems operating efficiently to maximize uptime through quick and easy sanitation. Conveyor belts also have to ensure production of the high-quality products that bakers and snack manufacturers need to build brand loyalty.