Frozen Pie Line is One Cool System

January 23rd, 2009

Frozen Pie NewsThe Bama Companies, 2004 recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, has been making handheld turnovers and pies for more than 40 years. Recently, it installed an 18-robot system with a vision-based quality system to package pies as they arrived from processing.

Several potential suppliers were evaluated for this automation project. “Bama chose to partner with Sigpack due to the flexibility the robot system offered, by picking the pies directly from the main belt and placing them into the cases,” says Bama’s Vice President of Engineering Randy Roark. “Others were suggesting row distribution solutions, which involved multiple steps and greater complexity. Sigpack streamlined the process.”

Challenges in the project included a frozen product and its chilled environment, a high production rate, complex product inspection and a cinnamon topping. Production efficiency, quality control and sanitation were key considerations. “A test at Bama showed it required six people for a proper visual inspection of the product,” says Roark. “Prior to the design phase of the project, Sigpack Systems conducted lab tests, with actual frozen product, to review Bama’s inspection criteria, as well as to confirm the pick reliability of the gripping tool.”

The line, which runs at 1,400 pies per minute, incorporates a state-of-the-art vision quality control system, which ensures that only products of exact quality are accepted from the process equipment before being placed into cases.

The frozen fruit pies exit the Bama freezer in rows of 20. After a series of belt turns, the products enter the packaging room, where temperatures and humidity are controlled. The rows of pies are separated via spreader belts and proceed under an overhead camera, which examines the entire product flow.

Nine Model XR31 Delta robots are positioned on opposite sides of the main packaging belt. This layout facilitates complete pick coverage, reduces overlap and limits excess robot movement. The design also allows for easy operator and maintenance access to each robot within the system. The robots use a custom-designed vacuum picker to gently pick and place pies into the cases, which move in a counter-flow direction to the main belt. The system is also equipped with special filters to assist with the collection and removal of excess cinnamon dust. “The line speed was previously dictated by available staff. ” Roark notes. “Now, the robots are always ready to perform and we can maintain a more consistent line speed and production flow. The added benefit is reduced product variability.”

The vision system acquires a detailed image of the product carpet at the beginning of the line. Every single apple pie is then evaluated for acceptability, including minimum and maximum length and width tolerances, partial products, and overlapping or connected products. Additionally, the number, shape and position of the slits in the surface of the pies are checked, as well as the quality of the topping. The positions of all acceptable products are communicated to every robot. Each robot detects the exact position of the good products with its own vision system and picks, based upon a sophisticated strategy, the best product for the cycle. Advantages of this centralized quality control compared to an individual control in each robot cell are more reliable operation through easier calibration and safer retrace ability of bad products.

Natural Blues and Greens – Food Coloring?

January 23rd, 2009

Interest in natural colorants is increasing, even though challenges exist. For one, natural colorings do not provide the same range of hues as are available with certified coloring. For example, anthocyanin pigments, derived from fruit or vegetables, exhibit a reversible molecular structural change, when the pH of the environment changes. This causes a hue change from red to purple to blue, as the food matrix changes from acidic to basic. This characteristic can create issues for formulators wishing to use anthocyanins in products.

Recently, there has been an industry breakthrough with a new, natural blue coloring that allows developers to use a natural blue color at a lower pH level than conventional anthocyanin colorings. Up until now, there have been some purple-blue hues on the market, but this blue is more of a pure blue at pH values above 5.5. The patented blue color, offered by D.D. Williamson, is derived from red cabbage. “Available in liquid or powder, it was created by a strategic partner of D.D. Williamson, colorMaker,” states Campbell Barnum, global vice president, Branding & Market Development, for D.D. Williamson.

The blue works well in frostings, dry mixes, ice cream and non-acidic confectionery products, but its stability is still greatly dependent on pH and water activity. It is important that the food system have a pH above 5.5 for blue color stability. As the pH drops to below 5.5 and approaches 3.0, the blue hue will change to purple and then to red. It remains a stable blue from pHs of 5.5-7.0, whereas, anthocyanins normally demonstrate a faded and unstable purple hue at a pH of 5.5.

The natural blue coloring also can act as a base for new, natural green products by adding yellow colorings derived from saffron, annatto and/or turmeric. Use levels of the colors depend on the desired color intensity and application. The range is typically 0.05-0.2%. Labeling options for the blue coloring include “color added,” “colored with vegetable juice” or “vegetable juice for color.” Naming the exact color source is also acceptable, such as “colored with red cabbage juice.” Anthocyanins derived from fruit may be labeled “colored with fruit juice” or “fruit juice for color.” Although these anthocyanins are also known for their nutritional antioxidant properties, at the low levels used for color, the antioxidant properties are negligible.

Another coloring option is purple sweet potato, also an anthocyanin that demonstrated impressive stability compared to other red colorings, when used in food products with a pH of 3.5.

When formulating with naturally derived colorings, food developers benefit by considering processing and packaging conditions such as heat, light, pH and shelflife. Often, a single coloring will not work, so a custom blend of non-certified (non-synthetic) coloring is then required to achieve the desired hue and performance.

Food Companies Remain on Top of Customer Satisfaction Index

January 22nd, 2009

The University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index dipped only a slight 0.1 percent in the third quarter of 2008, to a score of 75 on a scale of 100.With the recession just beginning, the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index dipped only a slight 0.1 percent in the third quarter of last year, to a score of 75 on a scale of 100. Food companies fared better than most manufacturers, and perennial leader H.J. Heinz Co. dropped a point but still led all companies with a score of 89.

Despite having just ended a period of rising input costs passed along to consumers, the food manufacturing industry improved 2 points to a score of 83. That put it in a tie with soft drinks and brewing, but behind personal care products (85) and pet food (84) in the nondurable goods division.

“Heinz’s focus on its core product – ketchup – continues to allow the company to build loyalty and retain customers,” University of Michigan researchers wrote. “Even in a sagging economy, the company experienced a 12 percent boost in revenue during the last fiscal year.”

Behind Heinz was PepsiCo’s Quaker Foods unit, which improved 1 point to 87. All food companies were close, with all scores in the 80s. Campbell Soup, the researchers singled out, dropped 3 points to tie with Tyson Foods (which gained 2 points) at the bottom of the food category.

Soft drinks were listed separately, with Cadbury Schweppes (now Dr Pepper Snapple Group) leading with 87.

Also separate was brewing. A single point separated all companies.

Similarly closely packed was the pet food category. Nestle Purina and Mars led with 84 points each, and Del Monte was one point behind. Hills and Iams had 81 each.

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