Do a search of waffles on the Internet and you see just how many recipes and variations have been developed for the batter-based breakfast treat. They can be round, square or rectangular in shape; prepared at home with a waffle iron and served with any number of sweet toppings.
They can also be purchased frozen from a grocery store and cooked in a toaster—a popular option with consumers. Last year, the Top 10 frozen waffle vendors sold nearly $500 million in product. And, keeping up with demand is no small feat, which is why the leading frozen waffle vendors are producing as much as 500 waffles per minute during peak operation.
To make this happen involves equipment such as freezers, conveyors, controls and technical expertise to integrate these systems together. That’s where NCC Automated Systems comes in. The Souderton, Pa.-based integrator that specializes in automation, packaging and material handling applications teamed up with Dorner Mfg. Corp., Hartland, Wis., to design a new freezer packaging line with a major frozen waffle manufacturer. The new line not only improved production capabilities and efficiencies, but also brought along a higher level of sanitation, which is a must for any food manufacturer.
“The environments in food plants today really focuses on food safety; they have to make sure their products are free of contaminants and allergens,” says Les Patkos, director of custom and packaging systems integration, NCC Automated Systems. “With all the food recalls going on, this manufacturer wants to be at the forefront to make sure the systems producing their products are at the highest levels of sanitation.”
The new freezer line was part of an overall goal to upgrade processes and equipment at the manufacturer’s New Jersey facility. The project called for the installation of two new spiral freezers, which also served as the perfect time to upgrade related support equipment that feed the freezers. What made the project more challenging was the short lead time and the stringent quality and performance specifications outlined for the conveyor system. Time was of the essence, as the entire freezer line had to be operational in a time span that would normally take twice as long to complete, Patkos says.
“The project posed a lot of challenges in developing the layout for the conveyor system,” he adds. “There were challenges as far as how quickly or how steep the incline conveyors could be. They didn’t want conveyors overlapping. There were issues with integrating with existing vision inspection equipment. Certainly parts of this project had to be engineered out.”
“We took what we do well, which is system designs, engineering, implementing and installation management, and partnered with Dorner, which has developed a very nice, sound sanitary conveyor system,” Patkos says. “This is a case where we took the strengths of our two companies to provide a top-end solution to the customer. The building blocks to pull off a successful system were there, and what we needed to do was deploy those building blocks.”
Dorner engineered a conveyor system to feed the spiral freezers using its AquaPruf family of sanitary conveyors. The AquaPruf 7400 Series is ideal for food applications because of its sanitary design. It’s built with a durable, stainless-steel frame with no flat surfaces to eliminate collection points of loose food scraps. Continuous TIG welding of the 304 stainless-steel frame provides strength and eliminates fasteners in the food zone, which provides a more sanitary environment. Bearings are 400 series stainless-steel and filled with H1 FDA lubricant located outside the food zone, making them one of the highest quality bearings for stainless-steel sanitary conveyors.
More than 400 feet of AquaPruf conveyors are supporting four waffle production lines that feed two spiral freezers and packaging lines. Patkos describes the conveyor layout as fairly complex with many inclines, declines, merges and curves. The entire system was designed in 3D CAD to allow the manufacturer to see a virtual rendering of how it would look and operate in their facility.
The manufacturer has been producing waffles around the clock for nearly a month. It then shuts the line down for cleaning—a process that takes up to three days. The sanitation aspects of the AquaPruf line nicely complement the standards set forth by the waffle manufacturer.
“The Dorner system allows the manufacturer to completely break down the conveyor into individual components until just the conveyor frame remains,” Patkos says. “And each component is fully sanitized before it’s put back in service. They take sanitation very serious.”
Patkos says his company does build their own conveyors for certain applications, but for this project that required a system with high sanitation levels with a quick turnaround, Dorner was a good option.
“Dorner’s sanitary platform has already gone through a very detailed proving process, which many other conveyor vendors haven’t done, and it meshed very well with what our customer was looking for,” Patkos says. “Everything came together perfectly for our customer, and they’re happy with the outcome.”