Processors want greater throughput of higher-quality foods — this is a common theme we’ve heard from many of the equipment manufacturers we’ve interviewed for this blog. Maintaining quality, especially while increasing throughput, requires processing equipment that handles products gently, without damaging them. For many products, that means making sure you don’t overheat them during thermal processes like pasteurization and sterilization.
To learn more about the vital role heat transfer technology plays in the production of safe, high-quality foods, we spoke with Neil Swift, the president of sanitary and systems market units at API Heat Transfer.
API is a global heat transfer company that has been making an extensive range of plate heat exchangers for the food, HVAC, and refrigeration industries for more than 50 years. They also manufacture shell and tube heat exchangers, as well as thermal systems specifically designed for food processing (e.g., the concentration and dealcoholization of beverages).
Swift has been in the heat transfer industry for a little over three decades. In that time, he’s worked at some of the major heat transfer manufacturing and servicing companies, focusing primarily on the food and beverage market. In his 30+ years, he has seen technologies change and trends come and go. We asked him what pressures the market is facing now and what he sees coming in the future.
Continued growth in the premium foods market
Consumer demand for premium products has been driving growth and opportunity in the food and beverage industry for a few years now. As incomes rise globally, this premiumization trend is catching on in more countries around the world.
“The biggest opportunity we see today is continuous change in the global food market,” Swift says. “As emerging economies have more cash to spend, they’ve started to want more premium products. As a result, we’ve seen large gains in the production of specialty foods both here and abroad. For example, five years ago, there was no Greek yogurt in the United States. Now, everybody eats Greek yogurt.”
Another manifestation of the premiumization trend is increased demand for fresh food. This is causing more food processing to shift to the local market. “As an OEM, that means we need to be able to offer a variety of equipment to meet the unique food processing needs in different regions,” Swift says.
New demand for dealcoholized beverages
A growing body of research suggests that alcohol consumption is declining, and signs point to this trend continuing (Mintel senior drink analyst Caleb Bryant recently dubbed Gen Z “The Sober Generation”). But a desire to avoid alcohol doesn’t mean people don’t still want to enjoy a craft beer or glass of wine with their friends.
“There’s a current wave of growth in de-alcoholized beverages, especially among Millennials,” Swift says. “We’re seeing sharp growth in the brewing and winemaking fields as producers look to dealcoholize beer, wine, and cider. This is currently a big part of API’s systems business because we make the leading thermal dealcoholizing system globally.”
The budding cannabis market is contributing to this as well. Swift says that the legalization of marijuana in Canada and some U.S. states has brought with it a lot of interesting methods to extract cannabis, concentrate it, and so on. For example, beverage makers are starting to experiment with cannabis-infused non-alcoholic beer and wine.
Improving quality and efficiency with heat transfer systems
As the products consumers want change, so must the technologies used to make those products. For example, as a result of the premiumization trend, processors are looking for ways to process food products that have different textures and viscosities without damaging them. “You don’t want to scald it, you don’t want to burn it, you don’t want to create any hotspots.”
In the heat transfer industry, this hasn’t resulted so much in new technologies as in the adaptation of existing technologies.
“Over the years, plate patterns have been modified, changed, expanded, and improved to allow us to handle thicker, and more particulate-laden materials,” he says. “In particular, a number of years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to process materials with solid particles in them, like soups, using a plate exchanger. Today, you can.”
Swift explains that the advantage of using plate heat exchangers for food products is that, thanks to their plate geometry, they have very high efficiency, allowing the food to be processed with a very small temperature difference.
He uses milk as an example: “Let’s say you have milk passing through one side of the heat exchanger and a very hot medium on the other side. If the temperature delta (i.e., the temperature difference) is too great, you’ll scald the milk and impart a bad flavor. What you want is a very efficient device that can work with a very small temperature difference across the heat exchanger. To achieve this efficiency, you need to modify the geometry of the plate.”
That means optimizing the surface area to and allowing for a decrease in the pressure drop. “There’s always a trade-off between the thermal processing and the hydraulic, or pressure, drop through any heat transfer device,” Swift explains. “To avoid shearing a product, you need more free area to reduce the pressure drop. You might be able to heat a product to 50° with only a small surface area, but you’ll shear the product if you do that. A larger surface area and a larger channel will allow you to treat the product more gently.”
It’s impossible to have any discussion of food processing today without touching on food safety, and Swift has noticed an increased awareness in this area as well. For heat exchangers, that means processors are looking for OEMs to have food safety certifications, for the equipment to be 3-A certified, and so on. “This is becoming a more important global feature in heat transfer,” he says.
Increasing throughput as factories get bigger
At the same time as fresh food processing is becoming more localized, products that are transported long distances (such as for export) are being made in ever-larger factories.
“Whether it’s milk or a beverage, whatever it is, the factories that make these products are getting bigger and bigger,” Swift says. “That means the devices have to get bigger and bigger. So, processors that have been using a 6-inch port for the past five or six years are now moving to 8 or even 10 inches.”
Not only is there a constant need to add capacity, but the processes must also be flexible.
“What’s in and hot this year is out in two years’ time,” Swift says. “As new fads start up, if you want to be in that part of the market, you need to adapt your production very quickly to catch that wave. That means you need your equipment and machinery to be flexible so it can process different kinds of foodstuffs. A heat exchanger that’s currently processing milk could, in six months, be processing yogurt. In another year, the same unit could be used for fruit juice. As an OEM, we need to look ahead to see what’s coming so we can make sure we’re developing heat transfer devices that will be able to process new products.”
Supporting innovation for the future
Looking ahead, Swift sees a continued focus on food safety and innovation. He thinks that the trend toward fresh, local food will mean growth in the refrigeration market as food becomes less processed. On the other hand, he also believes food plants will continue to get bigger as global food shortages necessitate the increased production of products with a long shelf life that can be transported over great distances.
API has solutions for both of these outcomes. Their refrigeration solutions can help companies keep fresh foods cold. Meanwhile, their heat exchangers facilitate thermal processing for packaged and frozen foods.
The company further supports innovation and product development via proof-of-concept testing in their fully equipped laboratory, located at their U.S. headquarters in Buffalo, NY. Processors can bring in food samples, process them, and instantly see the results. For processors that can’t make it to Buffalo, API has mobile labs that can be deployed across the United States and Europe.
To learn more about API Heat Transfer and how they can put their 50+ years of experience to work for you, be sure to add them to your PROCESS EXPO 2019 schedule. They’ll be in Booth #4465.