Sliced Swiss cheese

Consumer demands for food are changing faster than they ever have before. A big driver of these changes is the increasing desire for natural, healthy, clean label foods. Consumers are also always on the lookout for new flavors (this year, ethnic flavors are in vogue).

The speed of these changes requires food processors to do things differently from how they’ve done them before. In particular, they need to be much more flexible in their operations.  

To learn more about how new technologies can help processors achieve this flexibility, we spoke with Jarrod McCarroll, the CEO of Weber, Inc., an established leader in the slicing space that focuses on bringing new innovations to market to support processors in many areas of the plant.

McCarroll is a 15-year veteran in the food industry. He started in 2002 at Marlen, specializing in equipment for stuffing, cooking, chilling, and dicing, among other things. He worked his way up, from sales rep to national account manager, to the VP of sales and marketing, which gave him the opportunity to build relationships and see many different plants and processes.

He’s been with Weber since 2013. One of the things that attracted him to the company was the namesake and founder, Guenther Weber, who McCarroll notes “truly believes in being the best in the world of slicing and everything influenced by it.” As part of this mission, Weber continues to grow the business by reinvesting money in new technologies and new innovations.

Let’s look at how a few of those technologies support processors in meeting consumer demands.

From traditional sliced deli products to a wealth of options

Not that long ago, you could walk up to the deli section in most any grocery store and have the same limited options to choose from: turkey, smoked turkey, Virginia ham, Black Forest ham, roast beef, bologna, maybe a pastrami. Today, these basics are being overtaken by whole-muscle and artisanal meats, available in a variety of flavor profiles and presentations.

For processors, this shift represents a move away from regular-shaped slicing logs to more natural-looking, irregular-shaped products that need to be handled differently because they have different properties and slicing characteristics. Of course, processors still need to deliver portions on weight, at speed, and with the highest yield possible.

That’s where new technologies come in. McCarroll mentions several that Weber uses, including optical weighing, lasers, scanning technologies, and different blade technologies, all of which usually need to be customized for a particular application.

One example McCarroll gives of innovation in this space is using x-ray technology to guarantee equal portions of a particularly challenging product:

Picture the perfect slice of Swiss cheese: pale yellow color, firm texture, and plenty of holes. If your product is an 8-oz package containing eight slices, how do you ensure each slice weighs exactly 1 oz?

Weber has solved this problem by incorporating x-ray technology into the process to map out the hole pattern in the cheese before slicing. The slicer then adjusts the thickness of each slice to deliver consistent 1-oz portions.

“This gives the processor a very high return on investment,” McCarroll says. “They can slice 100% of their cheese logs with almost zero product giveaway.”

At the heart of this and all slicing applications is a blade, and McCarroll notes that Weber can pitch and bevel its blades many different ways for perfectly controlled portions. “If the blade quality isn’t as high as possible, you won’t get the perfect portion. That’s why we have developed lighter, stronger blades, along with blades you can rotate up to 2000 revolutions per minute for maximized throughput and superior portion presentation.”

The rising demand for bacon

If there’s one trend that we can probably count on, it’s that consumers will continue to want more bacon. To meet this huge and growing demand, processors need to slice bacon at incredibly high speeds.

To help processors achieve this goal, Weber has incorporated an optical weigher into its slicing technology. This technology not only weighs the portions optically to guarantee a consistent weight, but also checks for imperfections and analyzes the fat and lean composition of each slice. Using this information, the processor can identify products that can be sold at a higher value, downgrade a portion, or create a different portion altogether.

For example, if the processor has a requirement of 80% lean/20% fat, but some of the drafts come in at 60% lean/40% fat, the machine can identify those drafts to be downgraded. It’s also common in drafts of bacon to have a small indentation or wrinkle from when the belly is pressed. If the processor specifies that this indentation can’t be more than a certain size, the machine can visually sort out any drafts with indentations exceeding that value.

“This is important because it significantly increases the speed at which we can slice and deliver portions,” McCarroll says. “We would have to slow down the slicing speed for the human eye to pick these things up, and for processors that’s money out the door. With this technology, we can improve throughput and also reduce the labor cost for these processes.”

These technologies are pretty new, McCarroll says. However, he notes that they’re rapidly being accepted. “If you have higher throughput and your on-weights are still high, that means more profit in your pocket.”

More flexibility, more automation

Echoing many of the other experts who’ve been part of this interview series, McCarroll notes that an overarching theme guiding innovation across the entire industry is the desire for more flexible and more automated solutions. “We continue to zoom down that path; we’re not walking down it. The industry is forcing us — every manufacturer — to rapidly transition our business to more flexible designs with higher automation.”

He emphasizes that automation isn’t just about lowering labor requirements, but also about food safety. “How can we take the human element out of processing so that people aren’t interacting with our food as it’s being produced?” Robotics, automated loading systems, and automated transport systems to move product throughout the plant all help eliminate food safety issues that can lead to costly recalls.

Suppliers as innovators

Beyond developing new equipment, McCarroll notes that suppliers today need to embrace their role as trusted advisor responsible for educating processors about how they can stay competitive.

He believes that consolidation in the industry — of both processors and manufacturers — creates new opportunities for going to market. It forces suppliers to constantly ask themselves, “How do we stay on the cutting edge of innovation with technology that’s going to move the needle for our customers? What innovations can we offer that they aren’t even thinking about, but that will help their business grow?”

Sometimes, those innovations aren’t new technologies, but rather services to help processors run their lines better.

For example, Weber has a new product called Weber Guardian. “It’s not a piece of equipment,” McCarroll explains. “It’s a program focused on how we can work intimately with customers on every level to help make them better. This includes everything from training to optimization of their lines, to preventative maintenance, to having spare parts specialists look at their spend categorically to identify ways to reduce their overall costs.” Weber can even log into their machines remotely to evaluate machine functionality, find and troubleshoot any errors, and identify opportunities for process improvement.

McCarroll notes that the customers that they’ve partnered with on this program have seen “tremendous leaps” in plant performance, reduction of spend, and increased uptime. “It has been a very good solution for both companies. We’re supposed to be the experts and our customers want us to bring that expertise into their plants to help them improve.”

Weber is also moving into more advanced digital realms. For example, they’re working on an app that gives customers more functionality from a diagnostic standpoint. And, while McCarroll wouldn’t give any specifics, he hinted that they’re also exploring possible uses for digital technologies like virtual and augmented reality.

A PROCESS EXPO Sneak Preview

Finally, McCarroll gave us a small sneak preview of a brand new slicer Weber will be debuting at PROCESS EXPO 2017: the S6. “It combines the best technologies from all of our lines with revolutionary upgrades to slicing in terms of hygiene, flexibility, and automation.”

In addition, the company will be showcasing a new shuttle system with “ultimate flexibility” to transport portions throughout a plant. “It’s like a train set,” McCarroll says. “You can set up the track in whatever configuration you want to accommodate the best use of floor space.” For example, say you have a bowl of noodles and you want to add vegetables and sauce at two different stages. In a meat application, this could be a variety pack of multiple different types of meats delivered by different slicers to build the portion then packaged as one portion. The transport system will move the product through the stages, controlling the acceleration and deceleration, until it reaches its final destination, which is specified by a unique IP address.

McCarroll is also excited that Weber will be participating in one of the complete production lines that PROCESS EXPO is introducing this year, marking the first time a trade show will demonstrate a working production line of actual finished food products. The deli line will feature Weber’s TEXTOR slicer, which McCarroll describes as “a world class slicer with a simple, hygienic, open design.”

PROCESS EXPO is coming up, and as you can see, the show floor will be packed with new technologies and innovations. Register now to be among the first to see Weber’s new S6 slicer, their train-inspired shuttle system, and the industry-first working production lines. We’ll see you there!