Hopes that 2010 would see continued recovery in the economy and consumer confidence, alleviating the price squeeze on the manufacturing sector, have given way to pessimism as the UK faces major cuts in public sector spending, and further economic strife is forecast.
However, fortunately for equipment suppliers, the market for cutting, slicing and dicing machines that reduce manual labour costs and improve production efficiency is still there. Further, continued emphasis on environmental credentials across manufacturing is aiding sales of kit that have the potential to reduce processors' carbon footprint.
"Larger manufacturers are still investing in machinery, and we have also been doing more service work with customers, looking after what they've got," says Ian Bryant, managing director of Bryant, UK supplier of the Swiss Tipper Tie Alpina line of bowl cutters. "The machines we supply are mainly for sausages and black puddings, and people have been eating more, so the recession hasn't really hurt us."
"The recession has had a noticeable impact on our customers and how they do business," says Ken Mossford, managing director of Reiser UK. "The buying cycle has been expanded as customers take more time to make buying decisions. Our customers are looking for a quick payback or return on their investment. They are looking for machines that use some form of automation, so that they can reduce their labour costs."
"Everybody will acknowledge that margins are under pressure," says Malcolm Burgess, managing director of Union Food Machinery (UFM). "However, when customers are faced with a squeeze on their budget, they are looking for best-value and will often find it in the sector we're in."
Northampton-based UFM, a supplier of size reduction and blending equipment to meat and food manufacturers, is well-placed to meet this demand for value-for-money, quality products, says Burgess. "Customers are looking for fineness and consistency of cut, quietness, energy efficiency and flexibility," he says.
UFM is the UK agent for Laska, Schroter, Mauting and Jopp, supplying the processing and foodservice industries with lines also extending to cooking, cooling and smoking equipment, as well as preformed tray-sealing and vacuum packaging machines. Cutting, slicing and dicing equipment includes mincing and blending, cutting sets, bowl choppers and blades, dicers and derinder blades, pre-breaking apparatus and sausage cutters, supplied to smaller businesses and major manufacturers.
Laska Cutters are available in stainless steel in the models K 200, 330, 500 and 750 sizes relative to the production capacity needed for dried, boiled and cooked sausages, pâté and canned products from meat, poultry and fish. Manufactured in Austria, the equipment lays claim to energy-saving capabilities linked to low operation costs, stemming from its modern drive and control system of operation.
Specific features include stainless steel construction, with a closed base plate and cold air flow around the motor. Bowls are ergonomically designed for operator height and offering precise rotation, wear-resistant seals on drive, adjustable knives, hygienic surfaces and simple and safe operation.
Cutting speed, temperature, bowl revolutions, time and automatic fault diagnosis are operated through a moisture-protected control panel. Further facilities can be added to the standard kit, including touchscreen technology and applications allowing automatic water dosage, knife shaft brake, nitrogen cooling and a production management system for recipes and additional production data.
Solid housing, sound insulation, low vibrations attributable to the balanceable knife head and a low-noise drive system are all factors in the quiet operation of the Laska kit. The cutters can process both warm and frozen large pieces of meat without pre-mincing. This is achieved via co-ordinated cutting speeds, bowl speeds, knife number and form, and knife hood form.
Specific features of Laska Vacuum Cutters include improved quality and flavour and extended product lifespan. They also produce meat with a more compact emulsion, intensive, even and appealing reddening without air pockets and using less casings.
Laska Cooking Cutters are recommended for the speedy production of cooked sausages and pâté. They use closed heating and cooling circulation with a three-walled bowl using forced circulation of steam and cooling water, thus allowing higher temperatures and shorter batch times.
UFM also supplies the Laska line of SuperGrinders including the high-performance industrial WWB 200 and 300 models. A clean cut is achieved through Laska's unique angle mincer/grinder construction for processing blocks of frozen and fresh meat.
Suitable for a variety of applications, the Laska WWB 200 and 300 models offer the capability to mince deep frozen blocks or fresh meat in larger chunks to 3mm in a single working process, easily switching between the two by changing the cutting set rather than the worm.
A solid moulded feed worm allows for initial chopping of frozen meat blocks, while fresh meat is "conveyed with great attention to gentlest care of the product". Automatic speed regulation, meanwhile, facilitates optimum feed worm efficiency for both frozen and fresh meat, with loading possible via an optional hydraulic hoist for standard 200L trolleys.
As with Laska's Cutters, the Supergrinders offer solid stainless steel construction and hygienic, easy-cleaning surfaces. Add-on features for the WWB 200 and 300 models include a safety cover for the cutting unit; cleaning and assembly trolley for the working worm, feed worm and cutting sets; additional fresh meat cutting set; and desinewing equipment.
UFM's services extend from the planning of new production facilities to installation, training of operatives and engineering technicians and full maintenance support.
"We are always trying to anticipate our customers' requirements and fulfil them; keeping ahead of the curve," says Burgess.
"Ultimately it is about choosing a manufacturer that can offer the total slicing package the ability to look at a slicing requirement and come up with a solution that best fits the need is just the beginning," says Rob Unwin, director of Interfood Technology.
"Taking it beyond the manufacturer, you need to ensure the company supplying the equipment has the proven expertise and experience to make it work for you. There is no substitute for product specialists that have worked with a wide range of different applications and seen and learnt from the different experiences they have faced.
"Actually taking the product you'll be slicing and testing it out on the equipment you are considering is an excellent way of comparing performance 'try before you buy'," he says. "You wouldn't buy a car without taking a test drive, so ask to see how a slicer performs on your product. Perhaps also take the opportunity to see how some of the modules and loading options might help improve your operation. Fault repair, training for operators and engineers, dedicated service contracts and optimisation programmes can all help ensure you get the most from your staff and equipment.
"Choosing the right slicing technology in the first place is important, but ensuring you have the back-up service in place should also be a prime consideration in the purchasing process.
"Whatever the size of the machine and whatever the slicing application, the goal is still the same high acceptance rates, low give-away, optimum slice quality and maximised yield," says Unwin, "and let's not forget speed as capacity drives the manufacturer."
Oxfordshire-based Interfood supplies a wide range of food processing equipment including Weber slicers, with the latest addition the 905 offering the largest slicing throat in its class, according to Unwin. The Weber 905 is capable of slicing up to six standard 4x4 logs simultaneously, with the cutting system extending to 2,000 rpm if the product allows. "Speed is good, but not at the expense of the cut quality or control of the product," says Unwin. "After all, the money is in the raw material and yield is king."
Weber believes cutting technology and blade design have a vital role to play, designing its own stainless steel orbital blades in-house, optimising blade angles to the product being sliced and offering different profiles with or without teeth and a range of Teflon coatings. "Weber considers blade technology as a science in itself, and dedicates a team of specialised application engineers with the task of ongoing continuous improvement. The slicer is the engine driving the system but without a total solution, the line will never fulfil its potential; after all a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and there is little point slicing at 200 portions per minute if you don't possess the ability to load it into the packaging machine."
Productivity can be enhanced by adopting a range of loading solutions, from simple transport conveyors to multi-layer buffering, speed-loading, multi-headed pick-and-place or more traditional six-axis robot technology, he continues.
The addition of a portion control system allows weight corrections to be made in the pockets of the packaging machine and scanners and/or cameras can be used to optimise weight control. "All of these options, to name a few, are available to customise the line to the specific requirements of any given application, and can be seamlessly integrated to form the overall slicing system."
For Buckinghamshire-based Bryant, the key trend is further automation. "Its benefits are twofold, with automatic filling and cutting taking out manpower and more automation also taking out any variables. With a less automated system, one operator might use it slightly differently than another," says Bryant.
The latest update to Tipper Tie Alpina bowl cutters is the Swopper range, designed for both universal use and individual applications and ideal for coarse or fine raw sausage as well as cooked sausage or emulsions, including deep frozen meat.
The Swopper range offers superior fineness, gloss and good colour for cooked sausages and pâté including ultra-fine cutting quality when required, to uniform granulation for salami and low jelly and fat deposits in canned products, according to Tipper Tie Alpina.
Among the key advantages of the equipment is the speed of the cut, "brought about by the blade to bowl profile", says Bryant, "achieving a quicker cut and faster knife speed. The knives are revolving very fast, and the rigid cast bowl gives greater stability." High-powered motors enhance its efficiency.
Offering eight knife speeds and four bowl speeds to optimise productivity, the Swopper line uses the M55 cutting system for raw, cooked or boiled sausage. Knives are aligned to avoid adjustment or resetting after sharpening, while the hydraulic knife head allows for a quick changeover.
Further standard features of the Swopper range include an ergonomically-designed elevator and updated unloading system, enabling clean and speedy emptying of the cutter bowl, and adjustable feet.
The Swoppers are operated by a direct current drive with four-quadrant technology, offering maximum torque across eight speeds and tailored programming, including two mixing and kneading reverse speeds and six forward cutting speeds. Features of the ergonomic central control panel include an automatic electronic switch-off system and stored process sequences.
Using the Swopper eliminates the need for a mincer, mixing or blending machines and emulsifiers, while potential add-ons include an automatic lubrication system, water meter on the control panel.
Hygienic features include accessibility of all surfaces with a three-degree incline to aid water run-off.
The Swopper 80 is an industrial cutter using a three-phase alternating current motor with frequency converter and statistical process control. The S model features six speed settings tailored to customers' requirements, operated via a touchscreen monitoring temperature, bowl revolutions or preset cutting time, thus cutting down on manual monitoring.
The system can store up to 100 recipes and indicates any machine faults via alphanumerical displays, indicating malfunctions and solutions. Further safety features include a three-second stoppage time for the cutter shaft, linked to an emergency stop button for opening the knife cover, and interlocking mechanisms to ensure the equipment only starts up in a safe condition.
"Tipper Tie is constantly innovating and introducing more automation," says Bryant. "It is completely stainless steel and does come at a premium but it's the Rolls Royce of cutters. We are still servicing machines that are 20-30 years old."
Bryant's clients include the Vion Food Group and Cranswick, with the Tipper Tie Alpina range starting at around Ł100,000 and larger industrial models costing Ł150,000 to Ł250,000.
Smaller runs, bigger variety
"Some of the trends we see are smaller runs and greater varieties of product," says Reiser's Ken Mossford. "Meat processors do not want to purchase equipment that only works on one type of product. Our customers are demanding versatile equipment. The cutting grid for the Holac Dicer is a perfect example; it takes just minutes to swap out the cutting grid, so that processors can quickly and easily make a variety of products."
Milton Keynes-based Reiser supplies the Holac range of dicers for applications of all types and sizes, claiming it offers unmatched versatility and easy production of a variety of uniform product shapes and sizes. Featuring a simple-to-change cutting grid, the Holac can cube, strip, shred or flake all types of meat products and improve yields, with consistent size pieces ranging from 4mm to 75mm at production rates of 225kg to 4,500kg per hour.
The Holac range is available in stand-alone form and fully-automated lines, with capacity to process both loose and pre-formed product. Versatility is a key feature of the design, as is easy hygiene.
"We work with customers to help them expand their product line," says Mossford. "With a Holac Dicer, processors can use the same raw materials they currently process to produce new products such as cubes for kebabs and stews; strips for fajitas and stir-fry; juliennes for salads; shreds and flakes for salad; and pizza toppings.
"And for processors looking at a dedicated line, the automation, high performance and product uniformity of a Holac Dicer gives it a clear edge."
The compact Holac Cubixx is a universal, multi-purpose machine, offering extended flexibility, and ideal for smaller applications. It can produce cubes, slices, flakes or strips from meat, poultry and seafood. The Cubixx XL features a magazine length of 500mm and is suitable for processing pre-formed products without the need for pre-cutting, with an output up to 1,800kg/hour.
The flexible Holac AUT 30 is a high-performance, multi-purpose dicer, featuring a multifunctional infeed well-suited to larger applications. Product can be loaded by hand, with an integrated lift/tilt or via conveyor belts, and it can process both loose or pre-formed products and blocks. The AUT 30 can produce cubes, slices, flakes, or strips from meat, poultry and seafood, with an output of up to 2,800kg/hour.
The Holac HA series of dicers are semi-automatic, multi-purpose machines designed for high-volume applications. The HA 30 handles pre-formed products, while the HA 125 can process loose or pre-formed products. Again producing cubes, slices, flakes, or strips from meat, poultry and seafood, the Holac HA has an output of up to 2,800kg/hour.
The Holac VA series of dicers are fully automatic, multi-purpose machines. Product is loaded with an integrated lift/tilt or via conveyor belts. A large hopper and large magazine allow maximum output up to 4,500kg/ hour.
Holac also offers a Sectomat Slicers range for all types of slicing and portioning applications, producing uniform slices from fresh, cooked or tempered meat, poultry and seafood. All Sectomat Slicers are designed for easy sanitation and total hygiene, and slice naturally-shaped or formed product with speed, accuracy and precision, says Reiser.
Consistently shingled or stacked slices are said to be easily achieved using the Sectomat range, which uses a planetary action-slicing blade coupled with a synchronised belt and gripper feed system to produce slices from the thinnest prosciutto to the thickest meatloaf. Interleaving, underleaving, checkweighing and automatic loading options are all available.
The Sectomat 20/26 features a precise, hydraulic product in-feed, resulting in a fine, clean cut with capacity for up to 400 cuts per minute with a double-wing blade. The Sectomat 23 offers greater flexibility via an intelligent controller, capable of portioning product into groups with equal or different slice thicknesses.
The Sectomat 28 CT boasts continuous, high-volume slicing, offering infinitely adjustable cutting speed and slice thickness. With a double-wing blade and capacity to cut up to 800 cuts per minute, the 28 CT's high output and superior cutting quality make it an ideal choice for the most demanding applications, according to Reiser.
"The processor must be able to produce a quality product using our equipment. Our meat specialists and technicians work closely with our customers to ensure our Holac dicers and slicers deliver a finished product that meets the customer's expectations," says Mossford.
Marel targets a market hit
The market for pre-cooked bacon is in rapid growth, with the US leading the charge and Europe following close behind.
As with many sudden developments, though, this explosion in demand has leapt ahead of the technology to deliver what the modern food industry needs, says leading equipment supplier Marel. Now, the Icelandic engineering giant, is aiming to rectify that situation with the launch of a product, which it hopes will bring the lessons learnt from years of innovation in slicing for the retail sector into the pre-cooked foodservice arena.
The IBS4600, developed at Marel's UK operation in Norwich, takes some of the company's proven technology from the competitive slicing market and moves it one stage further, by effectively providing four slicers in one something the company claims is a world-first. Marel is confident that the IBS4600's combination of cutting-edge technology and high-volume output, all within a limited footprint, will prove a hit both in the US market and in Europe.
There is certainly a market for it, according to Marel sales director Martin Baldwin: "The US market consumes around 2bn lbs of bacon, and a third of that goes into the pre-cooked sector. On top of that, we're seeing growth in the cooked area in the UK as well. The UK market often follows the US, so we would expect to see that growth."
According to Baldwin, however, the technology to meet that growing demand has lagged behind and is now decades out of date. As a result, production methods suffer. "The pre-cooked process in the US is still very labour-intensive and slow, but it's a high-volume business, so there is a lot of opportunity for processors looking to move up," he says. "The product specification was being set by the capability of the equipment to do it."
The new IBS4600 aims to kick that process up a gear, says Baldwin. "We had made a lot of changes in retail slicing and saw the opportunity to transfer that knowledge and technology and bring all the benefits to the cooked sector."
Tony Hodge, Marel product manager slicing, says the machine's development was the result of a collaboration between the company's UK engineers and a processor in the US. He says: "The customer came to us and said they didn't have enough control over the product with their existing machine and that they had had experience of our IBS2000. So they suggested we work together."
He adds the result has met, and exceeded, their expectations. "It's changing the way the processor approaches the product and gives them and their customers a more consistent product."
While the system was developed in direct collaboration with the processor, Marel believes there is a large market crying out for its new technology. "The competition in this sector is 30-35 years old, but our machine brings it to a whole new level," says Hodge.
The machine features four separate in-feed points, all of which can run independently, so it can slice on all four blades, or just one, depending on the volume required. The blades can also be set independently to cut at different thicknesses.
Marel has added elements from some of its other equipment to ensure the new IBS4600 is ahead of the pack, a key one being its vision slicing technology, which uses cameras and sensors to scan the face of the meat coming into the slicer, assessing the lean/fat ratio. That information is then used to ensure each slice is accurately measured in order to achieve the desired weight of the end-product.
The machine's capability is astonishing, with each blade capable of reaching speeds of 600 cuts per minute, enabling a total output of 2,400 slices a minute. In fact, as the slicer has been developed with the key purpose of supplying into a cooked bacon line, the only thing holding back the speed is the microwave cooking technology at the other end, says Hodge. "The machine can go over 600 slices per minute per blade, but the microwave cannot cope with that. However, it's there for the future."
Hygiene is always an important factor in food production, and the system opens up fully to allow simple cleaning and maintenance, with moving parts easily and quickly stripped down and stored on unique cleaning trolleys, or "chariots", as the US processors like to call them.
Benefits to processor
Meanwhile, the processor has benefited massively, adds Baldwin. "In the past, people accepted what was in a pack at the end, because that's what the technology could deliver. Equipment was old, low-tech, and costs were high. So there was poor quality control and that led to losses in yield."
He claims the IBS4600 brings processors greater control over high-volume production and, ultimately, an improved product and all without sacrificing a large and valuable footprint for the new equipment. With processors always on the look-out to cut losses, boost consistency and save space in ever-tightening factories, Marel is hoping it has a winner on its hands.