The tastes and lifestyles of American consumers continue to change, as do their expectations of food brands. Food is no longer only about nutrition, and choices are now often an expression of personal identity or environmental goals. As processors race to keep up, they require equipment with the capabilities to help them meet these new challenges.
“We are seeing a rise in new product development focused on healthy ingredients, plant-based proteins and functional foods,” says Christine Banaszek, director of sales at Ross Mixers. “Growing competition, the high cost of raw materials, and supply chain uncertainties are also compelling manufacturers to review their existing mixing operations and switch to more efficient and cost-effective technologies. They are seeking ways to optimize production processes, reduce energy consumption, minimize waste, and maximize personnel.”
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Personal tastes are also changing, according to Joby Ferary, vice president of sales for North American Process, the parent company of Infini-Mix. “Consumers are looking for enhanced flavors, more spice in sauces and spreads, and more inclusions and toppings in nut butters and ice creams. This [requires] the capacity to handle a wide range of additives with the same equipment and the ability to switch from recipe to recipe with little waste and short changeovers.”
Luis Roberto Pontes, portfolio manager, Processing Solutions and Equipment Channel Management and Key Components at Tetra Pak, points to increased consumer demand for products that promise to negate harmful environmental and climate-changing impacts. “Some people are looking to brands to help them make choices that help to protect our planet. Transparent and meaningful labelling such as zero-waste or net-positive food production and processing across the whole supply chain can help avoid scepticism and accusations of green-washing,” he explains.
“Other people see the effects of climate change unfold and they are choosing to adapt their diets and lifestyles for the planet,” Pontes adds. “Plant-based, natural, seasonal, and synthetic ingredients are on the rise, and some are increasingly interested in the circular economy, which reuses and recycles materials.”
How manufacturers are responding
How are manufacturers of mixing and blending equipment changing their products to meet these demands? “Speed ranks at or near the top for companies across every industry,” says Rene Medina, executive vice president at the Gericke Group, a provider of powder mixing solutions. “For mixers, this means fast setup before a batch, fast cycle times, and fast cleaning between batches without compromising product quality. For mixing dry materials and ingredients, we're seeing a shift to dry cleaning, which is reducing the use of CIP with liquid.”
Lee Holliday, director of process at IKA Works, adds, “Food processors are seeking a balance between time, function, quality, and cost. That means the solution should be operator friendly and generate acceptable results while being cost effective. It’s appropriate to implement processes that meet cGMP to insure a repeatable result. Methods that insure full cleanability with minimal down time and labor are also in demand.”
Holliday says processors are also evaluating technologies that minimize waste and are deemed sustainable and friendly to the environment. “As a result, there seems to be quite a bit of interest in disposable parts for mixing, so cleaning validation is not required. Closed systems that minimize dust and contamination are also highly preferred,” he says.
Ultra-high shear mixers, multi-agitator systems, hybrid planetary dispersers and powder induction technologies more well-known in other process industries, such as chemical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics, are being adapted to food manufacturing, according to Banaszek.
“Exploring outside of traditional food processing equipment is going to be part of the evolution,” she says. “Utilizing the latest advancements in PCL-based control systems with recipe software, new-generation mixers will lessen operator errors and batch-to-batch variations, while maximizing yield. Data can be accessed from multiple devices such as smart phones or tablets for practical real-time monitoring, giving operators and managers full visibility into a mixer’s performance and status wherever they are in the plant.”
New process methods
Manufacturing methods are also changing to meet processor needs for faster speeds and higher quality, according to Ferary. “Continuous processing and semi-continuous are the technologies of the future. A typical batch process has an operator pull a sample from a batch and take it to their QA lab to verify a wide range of product specs before the batch can be released to packaging,” he says. “Virtually any type of test you would do in a lab can now be done inline, such as viscosity, conductivity, pH, concentration/brix, and density. This gives manufacturers confidence that they will not make out of spec product when converting to continuous. In addition to monitoring the accuracy of a continuous process, highly accurate forms of ingredient metering are making inline mixing solutions more cost effective and attainable for even small manufacturers.”
Ferary describes how one macaroni and cheese manufacturer applied continuous processing to improve their process and product quality. “[Macaroni and cheese] is typically done in a batch process. The customer takes a blanched pasta and adds it to a molten processed cheese sauce. Once it is mixed thoroughly, it is sent to packaging. However, if there is any delay in sending the finished product to packaging, the hot cheese sauce will continue to cook the pasta and the pasta becomes mush. The whole tank must be dumped.
“By using a continuous process,” he continues, “the pasta and the sauce are blended right at the point of use as it goes into the package. This drastically reduces waste. In this same process, direct steam injection is used to cook the processed cheese sauce instead of a kettle or a tubular heat exchanger. Injecting the steam into a dynamic mixer and dispersing the steam throughout the sauce is the most efficient use of steam. You utilize 100% of the thermal properties of the steam—nothing is wasted. More importantly, there is no scaling or buildup on the sidewalls so the process can run continuously for many hours.” Ferary adds this can also be done with a number of prepared foods like soups, sauces, pet foods, starches, and hydrocolloids.
Medina says automation is a constantly evolving tool for food processors, so “the latest mixer technologies address automation as a solution to labor issues,” he explains. “We're minimizing the potential for operator error and streamlining the overall production process with both our batch mixers and continuous mixing systems. It's going to be very common for automated lines to run unattended for days with supervision by remote viewing.”
According to Munson Machinery, major factors driving the technologies and trends in mixing, blending, and CIP equipment are food safety, multi-formula capacity, and energy costs. Manufacturers are building equipment to sanitary standards and providing options to accommodate the range and diversity of new food products. New machines must also be quickly and easily cleaned and sanitized between batches or product runs.
The company predicts that while the basic actions of mixing and blending will remain the same, there will be increased automation and customization of processes to respond to future trends. Automation is expected to help food manufacturers improve the process of loading and discharging the mixer/blender, improving product and worker safety, as well as mitigate the effects of labor shortages. As an example, A&Z Pharmaceutical of Hauppauge, N.Y., now employs an automated drum dumper to load nutritional supplements into a rotary batch mixer.
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Another example is a Tetra Pak customer that made a plant-based product with a high level of fat and protein. Some ingredients, like sodium and calcium caseinates, were not only hard to dissolve and hydrate but very sticky and agglomeration was frequent. Because large batch sizes and a large quantity of powders had to be handled and fed into the mixer, a high powder intake rate was needed. The resulting product is very foamy, oxygen sensitive and uses high-cost ingredients, but the foam equates to product loss and less production efficiency.
The solution required by the customer would have to properly disperse, mix, hydrate, and emulsify the product while addressing challenges with different powder solubility curves. After trials were run at Tetra-Pak’s Mixing Technology Test Center in Denmark, it was able to fine tune and optimize the mixing parameters using a multistage in-line emulsification head. The results were shorter batch time and higher capacity, along with superior ingredient functionality, mainly in the caseinates and gums. The mixing equipment modifications have now been applied at all three of the customer’s facilities.
Growth in mini-mixers
Consumers constantly demand new products that cater to every type of lifestyle, so the food industry is frequently under pressure to formulate new products, according to Medina. “Hypoallergenic concerns, vegan, non-dairy, low-carb, and other dietary trends push food manufacturers to come up with more formulations more often, and mini or tabletop mixers and blenders reduce the volume of ingredients required to try out new ideas, and also reduce the time and costs involved.”
Rotary batch mini mixers are sometimes used by processors of artisanal food and beverage products produced in small batches. Biron Teas in Macon, Ga., considered using a V cone blender, but the footprint required to accommodate the rotation of the vessel was too large for its space.
The company ultimately chose a rotary batch mini mixer because of its gentle handling of ingredients and small footprint. "Organic artisanal teas, especially blends with herbs, wildflowers, oils, and berries, can't be crushed or pulverized. The mixer gently tumbles and turns a delicate––and sometimes sticky––tea mix into a uniform blend without pulverizing or powdering," says a Biron Teas representative, who did not want to be identified in this story.
Mini/tabletop versions of mixers and blenders often come with the same options as high-capacity models, but some cannot be relied upon to accurately predict the performance of their full-scale counterparts for off-line laboratory, pilot plant, small-production, or pre-blending applications.
“Ideally, R&D work should be done on laboratory mixers and blenders that are truly scalable so that results can be replicated in larger volumes in a straightforward manner,” says Banaszek. “On a small scale, blade size and agitator power tend to be oversized compared to the batch volume, resulting in unrealistic heat transfer rates and batch cycles. The common mistake is completely relying on residential kitchen mixers and blenders, as most of these devices are not practical to scale and will require extra time and resources for experimentation once the project moves on to pilot or production scale.”
Holliday agrees that the growth of more sophisticated mini/tabletop mixers and blenders is related to the need for smaller equipment that can produce scalable results. “The cost to develop smaller batches is much more economical. The scalability of the lab equipment ensures the results will be the same at production scale. Other significant drivers include plant-based and cultured meats, and new protein sources. Processors and suppliers are often new, smaller venture companies seeking to develop and formulate products in the laboratory prior to commercialization.”
Dry cleaning expands
Sanitizing material contact surfaces quickly and economically is vital to all food processes, but especially those involving frequent changeovers where cross contamination between batches cannot be tolerated. Clean-in-place (CIP) systems can minimize downtime and the likelihood of human error, resulting in greater product quality and plant productivity.
According to Munson Machinery, while most CIP systems follow a multi-step wet process of rinsing, washing, rinsing again, sanitizing, and drying, for some processes that would be adversely affected using water, dry cleaning solutions do exist. These dry solutions rely on vacuuming and using governmental-agency-approved alcohol-based wipes to remove excess material and sanitize surfaces.
Munson Machinery says the challenges are that dry cleaning can be much more labor intensive and take longer to complete. However, for food processing environments where dried foods are handled and the plant environment must be kept dry and low humidity maintained, using dry cleaning may be the only alternative.
Pontes highlights the positive side of these systems. “Dry clean-in-place is very useful for cleaning the areas where liquids and humidity must be avoided, like powder handling systems. These systems should be designed to secure food safety with the highest standards of hygiene and to enable fast cleaning and low downtime,” he says.
“It is important to keep the dry and wet elements separate in the manufacturing area, not only for lowering contamination risk and product losses, but also for improving the performance of the powder handling systems,” adds Pontes. “The powder flowability changes according to humidity and it affects the powder intake rates and production capacity of mixing and blending systems.”