Steel belts for chocolate manufacturing solutions

Cooling and forming are critical stages in the production of both chocolate and confectionery, and few companies have more experience in these areas than Melbourne-based IPCO.

As an independent company owned by FAM AB, and part of the Swedish-based Wallenberg group, IPCO is a globally active engineering company with sales and service offices in more than 35 countries. As a business its connection with the food industry stretches back almost a century, when its steel belts were first used in bake ovens.

Milestones since then include their use for cooling chocolate drops at an American confectionery company in the 1930s, for ice-cream freezing (1959) and for chocolate conveying (1960). Today, IPCO steel belts are used in applications ranging from simple conveying to continuous processes such as cooling/solidification, conditioning, casting, freezing and finishing.

In parallel with this, IPCO has developed its own forming systems including the Rotoform FD – a food-grade pastillation system used to turn molten product, such as chocolate, fruit-flavoured jelly, gum base, fats and other additives, into solid, consistently sized pastilles.

Processing solution for industrial and decorative chocolate
This expertise in pastillation in general, and chocolate in particular, has seen the company create a specialist division focussed on chocolate processing.

With its own production facilities in Breda, The Netherlands, this division produces versatile forming systems for both industrial (chunks, chips and blocks) and decorative (rolls, shavings, blossoms etc.) chocolate products. These systems are designed to maximise productivity while also ensuring a premium quality end product.

The company has developed a portfolio that includes depositors, extruders, cutters and decorative forming systems, as well as high-performance, steel-belt conveyors and economical plastic belt systems. By combining these different elements, IPCO can offer process lines suitable for everything from low-cost, rapid-deployment start-ups to high-performance, multi-layer systems.

Rotoform rotary depositing chip production
At the heart of every IPCO high-speed, high-capacity chocolate forming system is the Rotoform rotary depositor, a unit first developed for the chemical industry but subsequently adapted for food processing. More than 2,000 Rotoform depositors are now used around the world.

The Rotoform itself consists of a heated cylindrical stator and perforated rotating shell that turns concentrically around the stator. Chocolate drops are deposited across the whole operating width of a continuously running cooling belt. The outer depositor shell can be replaced to enable the production of chips of a different size, with a changeover in less than 30 minutes.

The circumferential speed of the Rotoform is synchronised with the speed of the belt so drops are deposited without deformation. The heat of the drops is transferred to cooling air blown onto the product and also to the belt itself.

The most recent addition to this range is the Rotoform HP, a high-performance system offering a range of advantages including increased productivity, reduced maintenance and the ability to handle higher viscosity products. Reliable, versatile and easy to use, the Rotoform HP is available on all IPCO chocolate production lines, or as a retrofit replacement for piston depositors.

Suitable for the production of chips from 250-35,000 pcs/kg, this versatile module delivers a consistently sized product at depositing speeds of up to 40 m/min. Available in 800mm, 1,200mm and 1,500mm widths, the Rotoform HP can process viscosities up to 25,000 mPas.

Single- and triple-pass cooling lines
IPCO produces a range of cooling systems to meet different throughput requirements. Single-pass, end-to-end cooling lines are designed for low-to-medium capacity requirements from 200-2,000 kg/hr.

These affordable systems can incorporate a gear or rotary depositor for chip production and/or extruder and servo cutter for chunks. IPCO triple-pass cooling systems enable high throughput rates while minimising floor space requirements. The product is deposited on the first belt and adheres to the underside for the second pass. It is then removed on to a second conveyor for a third pass.

IPCO steel belts for confectionery processing
As well as producing complete process systems, IPCO is also a manufacturer of steel belts, supplying third-party machine builders (OEMs) throughout the food industry in general, and the confectionery industry in particular.

Steel belts are a versatile conveying medium. They are available in solid or perforated form and can be manufactured to virtually any length and, at IPCO’s manufacturing plant in Sweden, to widths from 25-9,000mm.

Steel belts offer a unique range of thermal properties, being capable of operating in temperatures from minus 80°C to +750°C. Cooling is an area in which IPCO has end-to-end process expertise, working with machine manufacturers to ensure optimum productivity and return on investment.

These systems are used for cooling and solidifying, with applications including chocolate, sugar mass, caramel, gelatine, hard-melt candy, nougat, nut brittle and more.

Steel belts are also used in zoned conditioning systems; slab and bar casting applications (e.g. caramel and sugar mass); freezer lines; drying units; chocolate melt reclamation; and in finishing operations (e.g. cutting, folding, layering).

In terms of cleanliness and hygienic food handling, the flat surface of a steel confectionery conveyor means there are no joints or crevices in which germs can hide. Its smoothness means a cleaner, easier discharge of lollies, chocolate and similar products at the end of a conveying or processing line.

And stainless steel can be subjected to any method of cleaning – steam, pressure, detergents, brushes, chemicals, even aggressive scrapers – to ensure the lowest levels of bacteria and the highest standards of hygiene.

IPCO supplies belts for use in OEM systems and it can also supply every aspect of a steel-belt conveying unit, including drums, compact belt tracking devices, belt and drum cleaners, safety scrapers and belt-edge detectors, cast-iron skid bars, graphite skid bars and both active and passive belt-tracking controls.

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.

The company can also supply complete, standalone conveyor units that represent best practice in terms of hygienic food conveying. These feature a stainless-steel framework designed to allow access for cleaning, with no narrow gaps or other hard-to-reach places in which dirt, debris and bacteria could otherwise collect.

The framework is designed to minimise the risk of water pooling after cleaning, reducing the possibility of bacterial growth. The stainless-steel conveyor belt is “endless welded” to eliminate any trace of a joint and its smooth surface means there are no hidden gaps or recesses in which bacteria could collect. All bearings are food approved and lubricated for life with food-approved lubricating grease. The motor is food-approved and has IP65 protection.

Enhanced technical and service support throughout Oceania
In line with the strategic vision for business growth in the region, IPCO recently announced its relocation to a new office, warehouse and workshop facility at Burwood, Victoria. This new facility will enable IPCO to increase efficiency and enhance support capabilities – resulting in stronger partnerships with clients throughout Oceania.

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.