Most food manufacturers are up on sanitary standards and the need for hygienic design for their processing equipment. But what about the automation equipment, like the conveyors that transfer product from one machine to another, or from one part of the plant to another? The requirements here are less clear — they can change depending on the application, and on which inspector walks through the door.

To learn more about selecting this type of equipment, we spoke to Robbie Conley and Ryan Styma, Regional Account Managers at Triton Innovation. Based in Michigan, Triton is a supplier of stainless steel, sanitary, and food-grade conveyors and container dumpers. Though the company supplies equipment primarily for food contact applications, they serve other industries, too. “Anywhere there’s a sanitary requirement, you’ll find our equipment,” Conley says.

Collaborating with inspectors

“The biggest challenge customers come to us with is the fact that they’re not 100% sure what they need and they’re not used to dealing with the sheer expense of going from mild steel to stainless steel,” Conley says. “There’s quite a big jump there, and there are still gray areas for interpretation.”

A good place for processors to start is by talking to their local FDA inspector. As an example, Conley describes a project for a seafood processor that was planning a plant expansion. The company needed a conveyor to carry empty boxes out of the production area to a box crusher. A conveyor like this generally wouldn’t require any special sanitation features since it doesn’t have contact with food. But after consulting with an inspector, the company learned that the conveyor needed to meet the same sanitary requirements as a food contact conveyor because it was located in the food production area.

“Sometimes the inspectors are thought of as these big bad monsters who are only there to shut you down,” Conley says. “But inspectors don’t want to fail anyone. They’re there to educate and work hand-in-hand with processors to make sure the food they’re producing is safe.”

Understanding the cleaning needs of the application

The most important factor in selecting any sort of equipment is the application itself. Things can get a little confusing here because the guidelines for some types of applications, such as meat and dairy, are much stricter than for others, like bakery and snacks. “Bakery can get by with wipedown, whereas a meat plant needs complete washdown,” Conley says. “They use chemicals to clean, so they need to have continuous ground and clean welds on all of their surfaces. They want to minimize the cracks, crevices, and harborage points for any type of bacteria to grow.”

That’s why it’s helpful to take a step back and look at all the determinants — cleaning requirements, environmental factors, production stages, plant location, etc. — to figure out what features you actually need and what you can do without. As Conley puts it, “I don't want to sell you a Cadillac if you don't need that.”

To help narrow down the selection process, Triton groups its equipment into three standard design packages:

  • Wipedown series: The most basic level is the wipedown series. This equipment is for applications, like bakery, that don’t require washdowns. It’s made from mainly carbon steel materials, but also includes some food-grade, stainless steel components.
  • Washdown series: The majority of applications fall into this middle package, which includes equipment with stainless steel materials that can withstand regular washdowns. The equipment in this category has stitch welding and washdown-rated drives.
  • Hygienic series: This package is for applications with the strictest sanitation requirements, like in meat and dairy plants. The equipment in this series has stainless steel motors, continuous welds, and other sanitary design features.

These packages are just starting points, and they still offer plenty of flexibility — Triton customizes all of its equipment to the customer’s unique specifications. For example, you can get washdown series equipment that has continuous welds. “We do our best to come up with a solution that takes the customer's timeframe, budget, and capabilities into consideration,” Styma says.

Overall, Conley recommends that, when looking for equipment, processors provide OEMs with as much information about the application as possible. This will help the OEMs identify the best options. It also helps processors ensure that the different options they’re considering are comparable.

Equipment is only as good as its maintenance

Of course, buying the right equipment is only half the battle. “A processor can have the most sanitary equipment built to the standards of our hygienic package,” Conley says, “but that matters little if it's not properly maintained.”

To facilitate maintenance, Triton emphasizes cleanability for all of its equipment. But, processors still need to be vigilant. Conley suggests following the manufacturer’s recommendations for preventative maintenance and regularly checking for signs that it’s time for repairs or replacements. “Give your machinery a once-over every once in a while. If you start noticing cracking on the belt or on the cleats, get it repaired or replace the belt as soon as possible. This will prevent an incident where something breaks off of the belt.”

When maintenance issues do occur, Triton is there to help. “We’re here for the long haul and we’re always here to answer questions and provide technical assistance for our customers.”

Triton has attended PROCESS EXPO before, but this is the first year they’re exhibiting. “We felt it was the best way to reach a large number of food industry professionals all at once,” Conley says. “Everybody there is concerned with food safety and sanitation, and that is our target audience.”

To learn more about Triton Innovation, and meet Conley and Styma, visit Booth #2708 at PROCESS EXPO.