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Pet food manufacturer keeps it simple with a new bulk bag unloading and packaging line

A move across the street to a new plant facility is working out well for InLine, a regional manufacturer of pet food nutrient blends. Relocating to its new facility prompted the Pratt, Kansas-based company to upgrade its manufacturing process by installing an automated bulk bag unloading and filling system that simplifies its operations while delivering greater efficiency, accuracy and safety.

InLine moved to its new facility in the spring of 2017 after 25 years of sharing plant space with its sister company, Xtra Factors, a national manufacturer of livestock and animal feed minerals and supplements. InLine wanted to operate in a separate facility from Xtra Factors in order to prevent cross-contamination of its processing lines and products. By doing so, InLine is able to easily abide by the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act and ensure its production meets organic certification requirements from Oregon Tilth, a third-party, nonprofit, organic certification service. 

As part of the renovation of its new facility, InLine worked with Parsons, Kansas-based Magnum Systems to custom design an 80-ft horizontal automated processing line that unloads, mixes and packages its pet food blends, which InLine sells to pet food manufacturers to use as the nutritional base for their products. The company produces about 5,000 tons of its pet food blends a year for pet food processors in the central and southwest regions of the United States. 

New plant, new process

The centerpiece of the new equipment line is the Magnum Systems IBC2000 bulk bag unloaders. InLine installed six of them to process the six primary ingredients that make up its pet food blend: alfalfa, salt, choline chloride, pea fiber, agri mos and brewer’s yeast. Each of these ingredients arrive at the facility in 2,000-lb super sacks. The alfalfa, salt and choline chloride are loaded into one of the three bulk bag unloaders with actuated cut-off gates, which are ideal for unloading free-flowing granular ingredients. The pea fiber, agri mos and brewer’s yeast, on the other hand, are processed in one of the three bulk bag unloaders that have rotary valves, which are designed to discharge powdery ingredients that are more difficult to release. In addition, these unloaders have side-squeezing arms that massage the powders out of the bags to ensure they are completely emptied. 

The unloading section also processes the supplemental ingredients that are part of InLine’s pet food blends. Because only trace amounts of cobalt carbonate and potassium chloride are needed in the blend, workers manually add in these ingredients into the hopper of Magnum Systems’ Manual Bag Dump Station. For larger amounts of vitamins and minerals, workers use forklifts to load the 50-lb and 55-lb bags into a 14-bin micro-ingredient feeder from CPM/Beta Raven.

Equipped with load cells, the unloaders discharge certain amounts of each ingredient based on what was programmed into each recipe. A drag conveyor from Sidney Manufacturing Company then takes them to a ribbon blender from H.C. Davis Sons Manufacturing Co., Inc. to mix and homogenize the ingredients. 

After blending, another Sidney drag conveyor transports the final product to one of two bagging stations. Magnum Systems’ Model APO open-mouth bag auger packer fills bags between 35 lb and 50 lb, which are then distributed to companies that manufacture canned pet food. InLine also uses the IBC3000 bulk bag station to package its product in 2,000-lb bags, which are sent to manufacturers of dried pet food. 

Safe and secure

The new automated bulk bag unloading and filling line gives InLine a higher level of safety it didn’t have before. At its previous facility, workers manually unloaded, weighed and filled the bulk bags. When the primary ingredients arrived at the plant, workers hoisted each super sack on to a forklift and emptied the ingredients into a dump truck, which then dispensed each ingredient into its own individual bulk bin. Workers manually unloaded the ingredients from the bins into weigh hoppers and then dumped them into the mixer. Once the ingredients were blended, workers emptied the final blended product from the mixer into finished feed bins. They then poured the product from the bins through tubes inserted into the bulk bags, which sat on 4-ft-by-4-ft platform scales. After the bags were filled to the appropriate weight, the workers removed the tubes and sealed the bags.

Today the new equipment line improves worker safety by removing much of the manual labor from the process and streamlining operations, according to Jim Gatz, plant manager at InLine. With the IBC2000 bulk bag unloaders in place, operators simply attach the straps of each 2,000-lb super sack to a universal pick-up device and then use a forklift to raise and insert each bag into one of the six unloaders, which have heavy duty tubular steel frames that keep the bags firmly in place. The unloaders also have bag pans that protect operators during product discharge and an untie box for them to easily access the bag spout. In addition, drag conveyors transfer the final blended products into the filling equipment, instead of workers manually filling the bulk bags with product. 

“With the old system, we were lifting bulk bags just with a forklift and dumping bags into a dump truck. The bulk bag unloader really settles the product instead of us having to bounce it up and down with the forklift. We had to use the forklift, too, when we filled the bulk bags,” Gatz says. “There was a chance of bulk bags coming off the forklift and hitting someone. With the way they are locked into the [unloading and filling] equipment now, it just makes it a lot safer.”

The unloading and filling line also enhances worker safety with dust-control features that keep dust at bay and, therefore, prevent workers from inhaling fugitive dust. The IBC2000 bulk bag unloaders have dust collection ports that prevent dust from escaping into the plant. The Manual Bag Dump Station’s self-contained bin vent and exhaust fan creates a dust-free environment as employees manually unload ingredients into the hopper. When filling the bulk bags with the final product, the IBC3000’s 12-in diameter inflatable neck seal provides a dust-tight seal and a dual wall spout for dust collection, while the APO has an enclosed discharge area and inflatable bag spout that also creates a dust-tight seal on the bags. “It’s a lot less dusty. We do have a better dust-control system,” Gatz says.

Precision principles

The new equipment line delivers better accuracy and precision as well, according to Gatz. The unloading equipment has load cells that allow operators to program how much of each ingredient to dispense from the manual dump station, IBC2000 bulk bag unloaders and micro-ingredient feeders to the drag conveyors, which takes them to the mixer. 

“Every discharge station has its own load cells, and the blender has load cells,” Gatz says. “So every one of these stations can either weigh the amount it discharged or the blender itself can do a confirmation of the total amount that was discharged into the batch and confirm that all of the product that it expected has been received.”

The packaging equipment is outfitted with weigh controllers that ensure accurate product metering. Tuned to a preset target weight, the pre-programmed controllers allow the baggers to operate at variable speeds using a bulk and dribble feeding technique, which initially fills the bag fast to nearly the target amount and then fills the last 10-20 percent of the bag slowly to achieve accuracy. The weigh controllers also use advanced software filters that analyze the weight signal and eliminate vibration and noise in order to create the most accurate weight possible.

“We were just weighing the bag on a simple 4-ft-by-4-ft scale with a forklift before,” Gatz says. “It’s become more efficient now that the bulk bag unloaders and fillers have scales on them.” 

In addition, because the weighing and packaging of the ingredients are automated, InLine has been able to cut bag filling and packaging time by 40 percent, according to Gatz.

Labor economics

Changeover is also a breeze with the new unloading and filling system. Because InLine doesn’t have to use dump trucks and bins to unload and store individual ingredients and the final product, workers don’t have to wash down the equipment and the plant between production cycles. Now they simply place bags directly into the equipment for unloading and packaging. In addition, InLine workers no longer have to manually add vitamins and minerals to the feed premix now that it uses the micro-ingredient feeder. As a result, changeover is now about 30 minutes as compared to the five hours it took in the previous manufacturing process, according to Gatz. 

“It definitely helps with product changeovers,” he says. “We can change products with bulk bags much easier than having to fill dump trucks and bins. We just put a bag up there. That’s what we need. And we keep the process rolling that way.”

Gatz also appreciates that the automated system has helped to lower labor costs. Operating the new equipment line is less labor intensive than the previous process, which was heavily dependent on manual tasks. The company previously used six or seven employees for each production cycle. Now InLine only needs three employees to operate the bulk bag unloading and packaging line.

From lowering its labor expenses to improving safety for its employees, InLine is pleased with how its automated system is streamlining and improving the manufacturing process. “Overall it’s just a lot simpler with this new process than what we had with our old process,” Gatz says.