How to Overcome the Challenges of Handling Delicate Products

June 1, 2009
Vacuum technologies can help reduce waste, downtime and energy consumption.

For manufacturers of delicate food products, such as chips, crackers, candy and frozen goods, many obstacles can stand in the way of achieving optimal efficiency. Delicate products are often difficult to handle and prone to droppage, contributing to product waste, machine stoppages and unnecessary energy consumption. By implementing decentralized, compressed-air vacuum technologies and suction cups, manufacturers can address each of these challenges while achieving improved productivity, reduced waste and enhanced energy efficiency.

Let's look at each challenge separately.

Challenge: Dropped products contribute to product waste.

Solution: Apply a firm, lasting grip with specially designed suction cups.

Secure handling starts where the mechanism touches the product. Understanding which suction cup materials and designs offer the best hold on rigid snacks or bags of chips can help manufacturers improve the handling of their products, thereby reducing droppage and expensive waste.

In bag-handling applications, such as with potato chip bags, air leakage between the suction cup and product package reduces grip strength and is a major cause of dropped products, especially in high-speed applications. To prevent dropped products, cups that form to the bag offer an effective handling solution. The added security of the grip enables manufacturers to run their lines at faster speeds without jeopardizing the integrity of their offerings.

Suction cups designed with a long, stable bellow and flexible lip mold to bag surfaces to maximize surface area coverage. This design helps reduce air leakage to compensate for hard-to-handle, flexible packages without damaging the product. Cups with flexible lips are also gentle enough to prevent product damage, preserving quality and further reducing product waste.

Suction cups constructed from a flexible silicone material are also less likely to crack, reducing parts waste as well as downtime for replacements.

Challenge: Downtime due to machine stoppages or slow downs erodes productivity.

Solution: Install durable, effective equipment that efficiently handles delicate products without constant maintenance.

The droppage of hard-to-handle, delicate products can be a source of increased downtime due to resulting machine stoppages. Manufacturers fearing product damage during a high-speed application will often run their machines at slower speeds, hindering productivity. Maintenance can be another source of inefficiency if the machinery is not properly built or equipped to meet the needs of the application.

To operate at maximum efficiency, manufacturers must be sure that they can trust their vacuum systems to deliver strong and consistent suction for a secure grip on products. One way to do this is to install a decentralized, compressed-air vacuum system.

Building a decentralized vacuum system entails the installation of small vacuum pumps or cartridges throughout the machinery as opposed to linking the points of suction to one centralized vacuum source. What results is an improved vacuum flow that reduces the risk of product droppage. In the instance that the vacuum flow to one cup does fail, the entire line is not compromised.

Maintenance can be another factor contributing to downtime, which was discovered by Herr Foods Inc., an eco-conscious snack foods producer with 340 product offerings, including potato chips, pretzels, popcorn and onion rings. When the company sought a retrofit solution for its form, fill and seal machinery to reduce maintenance costs, it partnered with PIAB, a manufacturer of industrial vacuum technology. Previously, the machine was equipped with noisy mechanical pumps that required frequent maintenance. Herr Foods sought to reduce the noise and heat generated by the pumps as well as the repair costs.

Herr outfitted its 15 machines with compressed-air vacuum pumps, each equipped with a multi-stage ejector cartridge for a decentralized handling solution that consumes less energy. The pumps offered a secure and reliable grip on Herr's hard-to-handle flexible packages.

Since the retrofit, Herr Foods has seen a dramatic decrease in line losses and inefficiencies. The pumps have also helped eliminate thousands of dollars in maintenance and replacement costs.

Challenge: Inefficiencies increase the amount of unnecessary energy consumption.

Solution: A decentralized vacuum system equipped with energy-reducing accessories can cut energy consumption and related expenses.

Installing decentralized, compressed-air vacuum pumps in existing equipment brings the source of the vacuum closer to the points of use and helps minimize the loss of vacuum while also reducing air use. Alternatively, a centralized compressed air vacuum system can cause the vacuum to travel longer distances to the point of use. Since the decentralized system brings the vacuum source closer to the point of use, less vacuum is lost in traveling to the point of use, assuring a more secure grip.

In the case of Herr Foods, the new, decentralized vacuum pumps reduced compressed-air requirements for secure product handling. Additionally, equipping a decentralized vacuum solution with energy and air-saving accessories will optimize both the performance and energy savings of the system. For food manufacturers who package their delicate products in leak-prone materials, such as paper, plastic bags and corrugated cardboard, these tools can provide powerful suction without unnecessary energy consumption for effective handling.

Accessories, such as an integrated control, can be added to a compressed-air vacuum pump to fine-tune the performance of the pump while also lowering energy consumption by maintaining a constant vacuum level. Such programmable features deliver continuous vacuum or blow-pressure levels throughout the system.

Peter Tell is chief technical officer at PIAB (, a manufacturer of vacuum solutions for automated material handling and factory automation processes. He developed the multi-stage ejector principle upon which PIAB's vacuum technology is built.

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