Large scale bulk handling project boosts gluten-free production at bakery

Gluten-free, once considered a fad, is now becoming mainstream with more than 15% of North American households eating gluten-free foods.  As a result, the market for gluten free foods has doubled within the past five years and is now estimated to be approximately AUD 4.2 billion.

To meet this growing demand, Bakery On Main, a commercial bakery specializing in gluten-free foods, needed to significantly increase its capacity.  “We were operating at 100 percent of capacity.  Our bulk handling equipment, which consisted largely of inclined conveyor belts, was inefficient and very labour intensive,” says Michael Smulders, owner of Bakery On Main.  “It was also an open system, so ingredients were exposed to the atmosphere.”

After investigating various ways to upgrade the existing equipment, all of which proved unsatisfactory, Smulders decided to build an entirely new facility with an integrated bulk handling system designed specifically for gluten-free baked goods.  He commissioned an independent engineering firm to handle the overall design.  The firm worked closely with the Project Engineering Division of Flexicon Corporation to create a fully integrated system based on the company’s FLEXI-DISC Tubular Cable Conveyor (TCC) system.

Tubular Cable Conveyor principle of operation

Inside the TCC system, a series of low-friction polymer discs attached to a stainless steel cable gently slide bulk materials through smooth stainless steel tubing.  Because of its gentle conveying action and dust-tight operation, a TCC system is ideally suited for transfer of fragile, contamination-sensitive food products.

The stainless steel tubing can be positioned horizontally, vertically or at any angle.  Because the system is modular, inlets and outlets can be added as needed to control the flow of material.  The system can also be lengthened or shortened to fit the available space.

Regardless of configuration, the low-friction polymer discs and cable are driven by a rotating wheel at one end of the circuit, and maintained under tension by a wheel at the other end.

Two integrated systems produce granola and oatmeal

Bakery On Main offers five flavors of gluten-free granola including Cranberry Orange Cashew and Rainforest Banana Nut.  The bakery also offers six flavours of instant oatmeal, including Blueberry Scone and Maple Walnut Muffin.

The new building spans 10,200 sq m and has 6.1 m ceilings.  Because granola and oatmeal each require a different production process, Bakery On Main operates two separate bulk handling systems from Flexicon within the new building.

System integration permits fully automated granola production

 The granola handling system includes two Flexi-Disc TCC circuits, a Tip-Tite Box Dump Station, a Twin-Centerpost Bulk Bag Filler and two Bulk-Out Bulk Bag Dischargers.

The major granola ingredients are discharged from an extruder into the Bulk Bag Filler, which is equipped with an inflatable seal and a high level sensor and indicator.  Adjustable extension posts accommodate bulk bags as tall as 2300 mm when full–necessary because lower density materials, such as those used to produce granola, occupy more space per kilogram.

Palletized bags are then transported by forklift to a Dual Bulk Bag Discharger System which consists of two identical Bulk-Out BFC Series Dischargers, each with a cantilevered I-beam, electric hoist and trolley for loading and unloading bulk bags.

From each Bulk Bag Discharger, major granola ingredients flow onto a vibratory feeder and through an adjustable weir gate into a non-metered inlet adapter on a 150 mm diameter, 30.6 m long Tubular Cable Conveyor having one vertical and two horizontal sections.  The weir gate is programmed to adjust the feed rate according to the bulk density of the material.

Both dischargers rest on load cells that measure weight loss and signal the vibratory feeders to stop when a pre-programmed weight has been transferred from the discharger to a mixer purchased separately by Bakery On Main.

Minor ingredients are manually deposited into a small hopper due to the need for higher accuracy, and introduced to the TCC through a metered inlet adapter.  The combined ingredients are then discharged from the TCC through a full flow inline discharge adapter and fed into the mixer.

Once thoroughly blended, the ingredients are fed into an oven, which deposits baked material onto a moving conveyor belt. Baked granola then discharges into the surge hopper of a vibratory feeder that delivers the material into a non-metered inlet adapter of a 100 mm diameter, 52 m long TCC.

The TCC discharges finished product through inline tubular discharge valves into two packaging machines equipped with level sensors that signal a PLC to maintain surge hopper fill levels by starting and stopping the conveyor. Any excess granola is discharged through the system’s drive wheel discharge adapter into open boxes, which are transported by fork truck to a Flexicon TIP-TITE Box Dumper positioned at the intake end of the TCC. The boxes are hydraulically raised to create a dust-tight seal against a discharge hood, which is then rotated to mate with a gasketed non-metered inlet adapter of the conveyor, for re-transporting of the material to the packaging machines.

Oatmeal production process also fully automated

The oatmeal process is also fully automated, but without baking.  Received in 907 kg bulk bags, all ingredients are emptied by a BULK-OUT BFC Series Bulk Bag Discharger equipped with an electric hoist and trolley that can accommodate bags up to 1600 mm tall.

The contents discharge onto a vibratory feeder that flows into a non-metered inlet adapter of a 100 mm diameter, 11 m TCC circuit that, in turn, discharges through a full flow inline discharge adapter into another separately purchased mixer.  Blended ingredients are then auger-fed to a packaging machine.

A second 100 mm diameter, 8.4 m TCC circuit, fed by a TIP-TITE Box Dumper, hopper and vibratory feeder, supplies a second packaging machine.

Close cooperation with engineering firm eliminated obstacles

Throughout the design, engineering and installation of this totally automated and integrated system, a team of engineers from the Flexicon Project Engineering Division worked closely with the independent engineering firm commissioned by Bakery On Main to handle the overall design.

“The Flexicon people were detail oriented,” says Smulders.  “They had all the engineering resources needed to tailor the system to our exact needs, including suspending everything except the fillers and dischargers from the ceiling in order to minimise our space requirements.  They were responsive and very easy to work with.”

Mark Parisi, a member of Flexicon Representative Flo Dynamics, which supplied the equipment, played a key role.  “Mark shepherded the project along, solving any problems,” Smulders recalls.

“The new facility gives us the increased capacity we need without increasing our manpower requirements,” says Smulders.  “It now takes less time to produce a batch.  The new systems reduce damage to ingredients and are much easier on the workers.  Also, because the new systems are enclosed, ingredients have much less contact with the atmosphere.”

Smulders anticipates the need for additional capacity as the market for gluten-free foods continues to grow.  “With the production lines and team we’ve put together, we don’t anticipate any problems with meeting future demand,” he says.

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