Steel belts offer versatility for the food industry

Steel belts were first used for conveying food in 1925 when a carbon steel belt was installed in an oven to enable continuous baking. Six years later, the arrival of the stainless-steel belt opened the door to hundreds of more hygiene-critical applications across the food industry. The company behind both technical breakthroughs was IPCO.

IPCO is now an independent company owned by FAM AB, part of the Swedish-based Wallenberg group. The company has 600 employees; production facilities in America, Asia and Europe; more than 35 sales and service offices around the world and annual sales in excess of $368 million.

Hygienic processing on IPCO steel conveyors
Steel conveyor belts can be produced in solid or perforated form, in carbon or stainless steel, and to virtually any length or width. They are strong, stable and durable, and a flat, smooth surface enables, fast, easy and efficient cleaning for the highest standards of hygiene.

They are used across applications ranging from simple conveying to the processing of fish, meat, poultry, fruit, vegetables, coffee, tea, confectionery, baked goods, pet foods and more.

For some of these applications, thermal properties are key. No other material can be used across a range of processes, maintaining their strength and flexibility at operating temperatures from minus 80°C to +750°C. Applications include freezing, cooling, steaming, solidifying, drying and baking, and the ability of the steel belt to conduct heat quickly and efficiently is a major benefit.

Bake oven belts
Bakeries are another area in which steel belts are used for production. In this instance, the belts are carbon steel, rather than the stainless used in most food processing applications.
This is a challenging environment and bake oven belts have to be able to withstand extraordinary stresses. They are tensioned, tracked, heated up, cooled down, and turned around rollers thousands of times a day. And every single steel belt includes a welded joint that has to be just as capable of withstanding this treatment as the belt material itself.
However, the steel belt’s inherent stability, durability and resistance to stretching means it can deliver a long working life, in many cases 20 years or more.

The solid surface provides a crisp base that cannot be achieved on any other conveying medium, and its hard, smooth quality delivers a clean product release. Whether solid or perforated, a steel belt stays flat, keeps its shape and offers excellent thermal conductivity. Products as varied as pizza bases, granola bars, biscuits, cakes, macaroons and brownies can all be baked on a steel belt.

One benefit not always recognised about steel belts is their energy efficiency. Solid-steel belts are lighter than wire mesh – perforated steel belts lighter still – and so cost up to 30 per cent less to heat. Each time the belt exits the baking chamber, it begins to cool and has to be heated up again, so the savings are continuous. As much of 25 per cent of an oven’s energy consumption is needed to heat the belt, so the savings can be considerable.

Conveying and cooling
The most basic application is simple conveying, where the qualities of stainless steel – chemical and bacterial neutrality, inherent inertness, and ease of sanitising – make it a good choice for the transportation of chocolate and other bulk ingredients.

Wear-resistance is a useful quality when considering materials like sugar, whose abrasive properties mean rubber or plastic belts are often unsuitable, not only due to a limited lifespan, but also because of the risk of contamination by rubber fragments. For applications such as meat cutting and tomato sorting, durability and resistance to damage caused by corrosion or impact are other important factors.

In terms of cooling, products typically processed on steel-belt coolers include caramel, chocolate chips/pastilles, hard melt candy, nougat, nut brittle and more. In each case, the product is applied to the belt as a melt, either through casting or drop depositing, and solidified as it passes through a cooling tunnel.

In the case of chocolate, the heat of the melt is transferred to cooling air blown onto the product and to the belt itself. For products less sensitive to humidity, chilled cooling water can be sprayed against the underside of the belt, and the excellent thermal conductivity of the belt transfers the heat from product to coolant, delivering fast, controlled solidification.

For others, it is the inherent durability of stainless steel that makes these belts the right investment decision. Far more resistant to damage by corrosion, abrasion or impact than any other belt type, a stainless-steel conveyor provides the ideal long-term solution for potentially aggressive applications, such as sugar conveying or meat boning plants.

Full Range of conveyor components
This process expertise puts IPCO in the position to support equipment manufacturers and end users in the design of conveyor systems. As well as supplying steel belts, the company offers a range of ancillary equipment, including graphite skid bars that optimise performance, sheaves, shafts, bearings and breakpoints.

IPCO’s conveyor accessory range also includes a selection of belt tracking controls for accurate and effective belt tracking. One example of these is the Compact Belt Tracker (CBT), a light, self-supporting device available in a range of sizes to suit belt widths from 600-3000mm.

More than 100 years’ experience in belt production and service
IPCO’s heritage in belt production stretches all the way back to 1901 and the company has been behind most major innovations since then. IPCO engineers have extensive experience of working with baking and confectionery machine builders and end users to achieve optimum performance and reliability, and this process expertise is readily available.

As well as manufacturing steel belts for use in OEM systems, the company is able to supply every aspect of a steel belt conveying unit, including drums, tracking devices, skid bars and more. Engineers can advise on upgrade paths or optimum process layouts, and the company’s worldwide technical support network means that installations and commissioning can be carried out quickly and efficiently.

IPCO Australia is moving to a new office
The company has recently announced its relocation to a new business park in Burwood, Victoria.
“We look at this new location as the start of another chapter in our history,” says Kerenza Nortje, marketing manager, Oceania.