Foreign materials — particularly metals — are consistently a top cause of product recalls. That’s why metal detectors are found on just about every type of processing line.
To learn more about current advancements in separation technology, we spoke with Eric Confer, the Market Manager for Light Industries at Eriez Magnetics.
Eriez got its start in 1942, when Orange Fowler Merwin, aka O.F., devised an “alnico” magnet to help keep stray bits of metal out of grain destined for grinding. “For the most part,” Confer says, “magnets have not significantly changed since then. But we can continue to improve upon the original concept with advancements in engineering and the materials used to make them.”
That’s exactly what Eriez has done, and today the company makes metal detectors, magnetic separators, and vibratory feeders, screeners, and conveyors for food processing and manufacturing.
What’s new in separation technology
Magnetic separators are still the backbone of the company today, as well as its best-seller among food industry customers. These machines pull out any fine metal pieces found along designated points of the production line, and they work with both wet and dry materials. Separators are ubiquitous, but so unobtrusive that Confer says some companies aren’t even aware they have them on the floor. It’s an essential piece of equipment in the food processing world that often goes unrecognized.
By contrast, Eriez’ metal detection equipment is ever-evolving. “For us, the metal detector is where the technology is really advancing. Every year, we're finding some aspect to enhance the next model.” Currently, they’re working on their eighth generation machine.
To take both technologies one step further, last year, Eriez released a “Double Team” system that combines a magnetic separator and a metal detector into one unit. “Typically, you want to take out as much ferrous metal as possible with the magnet before it goes through the detector to catch things like brass, aluminum, and stainless steel,” Confer explains. “The metal detector picks up what the magnet couldn’t get.” By protecting against both ferrous and non-ferrous product contamination, the “Double Team” system boosts overall performance and produces as close to a perfect product yield as possible. Even though it’s only been on the market for less than a year, it’s already seen success.
Eriez puts the same sort of innovation into their feeding, screening, and conveying equipment. Their Model 76 feeder came to market about two years ago, equipped with a single drive unit, which is ideal for packaging machines. “You want to hit the center of the distribution scale,” Confer explains, “and the single drive allows us to cantilever this feeder over it.” It also simplifies sanitation and maintenance and offers “consistent feed rates so the customers can always process whatever the rate is per hour very, very accurately.”
Keeping up with regulatory compliance via collaboration and coaching
In terms of current challenges, the biggest one Confer sees in the industry is simply keeping current. “When it comes to design and food safety, there are several agencies and programs you need to be familiar with. There’s the FDA and the USDA, SQF and FSMA, and some third parties that create their own practices and programs. Companies are constantly dealing with new technologies, materials, and processes they need to implement for compliance.”
To ensure they’re providing the equipment necessary for compliance, Eriez collaborates closely with their customers. “It’s a constantly moving target, so we rely on our customers’ knowledge and information to help us make the next piece of equipment,” Confer says. “For example, when it comes to sanitary finishing and sanitary design, we’ve worked with some of the biggest names in food manufacturing to create our fundamental design specs.”
The company also plays a consultative role to make sure that the equipment will work as intended. “A lot of people think that you just put the equipment in place and it's going to work,” Confer says. “But these are highly sensitive pieces of equipment, so we need to coach people through the installation process.”
A lot of coaching also takes place surrounding the vibratory feeding equipment. Electromagnetic feeders are completely different from traditional conveyor belts. Confer says they’re more efficient at metering, moving materials, and packaging than traditional conveyors, yet still low maintenance and easy to clean. And because they employ magnetic forces, they don’t consume nearly as much power. All of this can be quite new for food companies, which is why Eriez has a test lab where they can run processor’s samples through the equipment.
Developing new processes for new products
As we’ve noted in several articles in this series, consumer tastes and preferences are changing more quickly than ever before. That means processors need to innovate to keep up with the trends.
“Companies are creatively taking their core competencies into different arenas,” Confer says. “These can be different flavors, shapes, or mixes.” Many times, the processors are going into uncharted territory, following health-conscious food trends and using new ingredients. But before they can launch something into the market, they have to make sure the process is compliant and assess how to handle and package the product safely.
That’s where Eriez comes in, and it’s one of Confer’s favorite parts of the job. “We work with customers to improve their process to make their product better and safer for consumers. The exciting part is we're helping to create something new. It's a bit more fun than just doing the same thing every day.”
When developing new processes, Eriez tests how well the product flows through the magnets, the sensitivity level of the metal detector, and how the separation and detection systems might impact the structure of the product. “Then, when it comes to the feeders and screeners,” Confer says, “we want to know, how well does it move?” This information helps them recommend the right equipment for the specific application.
The benefits of a global operation
One of the reasons Eriez has been so successful is the company’s global presence, which positions them to share breakthrough products and technology worldwide. “Somewhere around the globe, somebody from Eriez is always working on the next development,” Confer says. “Whether it's new metal detectors, feeder designs, magnetic circuits, flotation columns, or wet drum separators, when I go to bed tonight, somebody else in Australia, Japan, or China is picking up the research where we left off.”
The results are to the benefit of all Eriez customers. So, if someone in Japan finds a way to strengthen tube magnets, they can combine that knowledge with progress in other countries, which results in the customer getting the best possible product.
This learning exchange, which Confer describes as a “multi-way street” also allows Eriez to get ahead of the competition in introducing new technologies to local markets. For example, global customers have been requesting gauss performance in equipment for a while, but only recently have U.S. customers started requesting this as well. Eriez has traditionally remained focused on pull force, “and we're still going to do that,“ Confer says. But, now they’re also “embracing the global request” of gauss performance and bringing a new technology to the global market.
At the end of the day, the folks at Eriez are happy just to see their customers’ products on the grocery store shelves. Whether they’re working with big or small companies, Confer says it’s nice to be able to see the fruits of their labor. “You know that the company put the time in to make sure that what's in the package is perfect, and we got to be a part of that journey.”
Eriez has been attending PROCESS EXPO for many years. “PROCESS EXPO is a necessary show,” Confer says. “Our customers are there and we want to be in front of them. Our competitors are there, too, so we get to see their offerings. It’s a show you don’t to miss, not just because it’s the biggest show in the industry, but because if you aren’t there, people notice.”
If you’re in the market for new separation equipment, be sure to add Eriez to your PROCESS EXPO schedule. You’ll find them in Booth #3009.