Smooth operators

?Machinery manufacturers are under increasing pressure to smarten up with the times. So how are they responding, asks Chloe Smith

We build big and we build heavy," says Oliver Rake, simply and with certainty. Walking around the headquarters of Weber in the small town of Breidenbach, it is difficult to think of a more succinct description of German engineering or of the slicing machines the company supplies worldwide.

As area sales manager for Weber, Rake has an enormous patch, covering Europe, Australasia and South Africa. But it is Germany where Weber has its highly secretive research and development department, Germany where the machines are constructed, with welded edges so smooth it is difficult to tell if the metal has, in fact, been folded, and Germany where test kitchens churn out sliced meats in overlapping layers, forming circles, triangles and any other presentation format imaginable.

Slicing equipment is Weber's speciality, and Rake is very much aware of what food trends are driving the development of new machinery. Hygiene is one, with retailers demanding more and more assurances from manufacturers. This was one of the factors that drove the development of Weber's stainless steel, round cutting blade, developed in 2005. Its composition is a closely guarded secret. Stainless steel has two advantages - hygiene and low weight - but, normally, it is impossible to use, being just too soft. Weber spent three years and millions of pounds developing a compound to harden the metal. It is not common practice for companies to manufacture their own blades - normally they are bought in - but it is all part of the desire for "absolute control", according to Rake.

At the moment, only round blades are

available in stainless steel, but the next stage for Weber is to use stainless steel for its faster involute blades. >>

>> "We want as many parts to be made within the company as possible," says Rake, who claims that Weber currently manufactures 93% of its mechanical parts. Rake argues that the advantages of stainless steel are that repeated wash-downs won't result in rust and there are no coatings that can peel or be damaged. "Our customers are under pressure to fulfil hygiene standards and, in some cases, they're required not only to clean the machine during a night shift, they might also be required to clean the machine a couple of times each day," says Rake. "So the easier we make it for the customer to clean the machine, the shorter the cleaning process will last; we are always trying to make our machines as cleaning-friendly as possible."

This emphasis on ease of cleaning can be seen with Weber's safety covers, which, when undone for cleaning, slide away along rollers rather than having to be put on the floor.

Automation trend

The last 10 years have seen enormous leaps forward in cutting, slicing and dicing equipment, noticeably in automation, with lines becoming less dependent on workers. Jim Sydenham is joint managing director of Interfood Technology, the UK's sole agent of Weber machinery. He thinks there are many reasons why manufacturers are increasingly demanding more sophisticated auto-loaders, checkweighers and scanners in their cutting, slicing and dicing lines. "Staff levels are one thing, hygiene is another, and productivity is another issue; all these get rolled in as to why you would automate a line. It may just be the availability of staff," he says. Working in a cold room on a production line is less attractive to many than "selling ice-creams on the beach in Cornwall for instance", says Sydenham. In terms of productivity, automating the line means human error is eliminated and speed is increased. "If you don't have the people dictating the line speed, it's the line that dictates the speed and you're getting more out of the door," he says.

Rake describes how Weber's machinery has developed and changed over the years. Weber's first-ever slicer, the 7,000, was launched in 1986. "All this slicer could do was slice a product in a fixed slice thickness then provide it on a conveyor. Then it would be loaded manually," says Rake. "Over the years the requirement has been to further automate the process. So we developed checkweighers to make sure every pack was the same, camera systems and scanner systems to make sure every pack was the same weight. And then we have auto-loading systems to auto-load the packet into the thermoformer and into the packaging machine."

The result is that Weber's machines are now capable of slicing up to 2,000 slices a minute while retaining accurate pack weights. The top-end 904 slicer is designed to cope well with recent food trends for more natural, higher-quality meat products. The scanner analyses the irregular shape of the meat and is programmed to vary the slice thickness to ensure each pack weighs the same. The end piece can either be factored in to each slice before slicing begins, >>

>> resulting in slightly over-weight packs, or it can be removed and used in other products: "We've had to develop the scanner and camera and the handling technology to cope with irregular products that aren't processed highly to compensate for the fact that people still want very low giveaways and high accept rates," says Sydenham.

Rake says the natural, high-quality food trend has influenced the development of Weber machinery: "If you use cooked ham as an example, whereas in the past there was a trend to (and I'm exaggerating now) buying the cheapest product possible, now there is a far bigger group who are prepared to pay a little bit more to make sure they get quality in return. I'm sure there is a greater demand today for whole muscle ham rather than going for 4x4 ham, a uniform product, 1.6m long, in a casing with added water. Whole muscle ham is comparatively short and it is a natural product, so you need a scanner to slice it. In that respect, the trend for healthy eating or for better-quality food has definitely influenced our business," he says.

Mixed packs

Continental trends for meat presentation are towards mixed packs, with two or more types of meats in an antipasti selection pack, for instance. Popular in Germany, Rake thinks retailers in the UK may soon be requesting similar products and says Weber has developed Overlapper equipment. The Overlapper is positioned to meet two or more slicers, which merge into one line. Conveyors sit on top of each other, carrying different sliced products, and the Overlapper lays the slices together on one conveyor and then into same pack.

Another trend Rake identifies is for very soft products to be sliced. He says Weber recently supplied machinery for a company that wanted to put slices of cream cheese into a packet, rather than just place the product in a tub. We may soon see pâté being sold like this, he says, as retailers think up more imaginative ways to display

meat products.

Weber has two new slicing machines that will be launched this year, but until IFFA in May, Rake's lips are sealed. Even Sydenham has no idea what will be revealed. "We have never shown so many different new developments as we will be this year," says Rake. "As far as our slicing lines are concerned, there will be two completely new models and, especially on the high-volume end, there will be a couple of new options available."

Weber will also be showing new auto-loading machinery for its slicers: "We consider this equipment to be revolutionary. Whoever is interested in optimising auto-loading and looking at the opportunity to add new presentation forms should not miss IFFA," says Rake.

International machinery company Treif is also hoping IFFA will be a success. Managing director Mark Henderson says 2007 is a good year for cutting, slicing and dicing equipment, with his company launching brand new machines and improving existing ones. At IFFA, Treif will be displaying the Divide range of slicers, which have been improved by including checkweighers on all the smaller models.

A totally redesigned dicing machine will also be on display. The Waran is based on a 25-year-old dicing machine that Henderson says has been successful. The new machine will dice whole tempered blocks of frozen meat, meaning the meat will not have to be divided by bandsaw into blocks beforehand. The product stays colder, says Henderson, and it saves labour. "Having a machine that will cut the whole block saves, maybe, one person feeding the machine and a couple of people bandsawing the blocks to fit that machine," he says.

"We have redesigned it totally to cut slightly colder than the existing machine. It has got independent controls for the two grid sets and the sickle knife, so rather than >>

>> push everything through at once at one speed, we've got more control over the cutting side of the machine. The grid sets that do the work are moving at nearly three times the speed to give far more cutting action, which is why it enables us to cut slightly colder."

This means the meat has less chance of getting near thawing point and requires less time in a nitrogen tunnel if it is to be frozen down again.

It is a busy year for Treif, with modifications being made to the company's flagship machine, the Falcon. Henderson is obviously proud of the Falcon, which is a fixed-weight machine that processes both boneless and bone-in products. Towards the end of 2007, the machine will be launched with the ability to feed meat in continuously: "The Falcon machine is already out and is proving successful because it is one of, if not the only machine that cuts boneless and bone-in to fixed weight," says Henderson. "But the new machine coming out is continuous-fed, so you get more throughput." Appropriately, it will be called the Falcon Conti.

Henderson echoes Rake and Sydenham when he says the trend for more natural, higher-quality products is influencing how machinery is developing. He says the Falcon is designed to cope with exactly such products: "We take the product totally in its natural form and just slice it with the aid of scanners. Our scanners are getting quicker and more accurate all the time. As the technology in that field progresses, we try to keep up with it." Henderson believes the Falcon compares favourably with the competition, criticising those machines that "tend to push the meat into a mould then try and cut it, assuming that the mould is filled. We slice it in its natural form," he says.

Looking forward, Henderson agrees that automation is one of the driving factors in the development of new cutting, slicing and dicing lines. "Labour is the biggest issue in this industry," says Henderson. "There is a huge turnaround of staff, so the more automated you can be, the bigger the saving on labour. It's not just the cost; the sourcing of the labour is as big a problem as financing it."

pulled look

Ironically, while machines are becoming increasingly automated, with fewer hands coming into contact with food, Belgian equipment company FAM is finding more of its customers are asking for machines that make meat look like it has been hand-prepared. David Barber, FAM UK's general manager says: "We have had quite a big demand this year in the meat trade for the 'pulled look', making it seem as if it were cut by hand or pulled by hand. With traditional cutting machines, the demand used to be to have it as pristine a cube or shred as possible, but nowadays people want to see the meat as if it were prepared by the housewife, so we're being asked to duplicate

hand-cut looks.

"We'll produce cuts for our customers that simulate the torn product such as chicken and duck. We even had a vegetarian meats company wanting a similar thing. They don't want nice tidy cubes, they want irregular cubes," says Barber, whose experience of meat processors emphasises the point made by Rake, Sydenham and Henderson - that natural products require new machinery innovation.

New techniques have had to be invented and "the tooling is probably slightly more expensive," says Barber. "All the previously produced cutting heads made nice clean cuts. All of a sudden, they don't want that any more, they want it looking natural.

"Traditionally, you expect meat for meat pies to be perfect-looking, but in fact if the housewife does it at home, she cuts it and pulls it and it just doesn't look like a standard-sized piece. Some of the major retailers are saying, 'No, we don't like it like that, we like it like that. It's more natural and that's the dish our housewives want to see'."

Retailers are also demanding stricter hygiene standards, says Barber. Many are carrying out more stringent tests and are looking for accountability from their manufacturers. The problem, he explains, is that, "Operators clean them down, but they don't always get them to the standard they should be, because people take short cuts sometimes."

FAM is looking at introducing a 'hygiene passport' into its servicing of cutting, slicing and dicing machines. "This is one of the other features we're trying to build into our service and preventative maintenance programme for the customers," says Barber, who compares the 'hygiene passport' to the forms in fast-food restaurant lavatories where employees sign to confirm they have >>

>> checked the room. Barber believes it will offer reassurance to retailers wanting to know the machines are being run hygienically.

"This has been a slow change," says Barber. The drive for hygiene has developed to the stage where even non-toxic, edible lubricants are now unacceptable coming into contact with food. "Where you lubricate the machines, on nearly all of them nowadays, it is totally separate from where the product passes through. Whereas before, even if there was a cross-contamination, it was not harmful, but now we're being told, 'We don't want any cross-contamination'. They have got to have sealed-for-life bearings, with no lubrication potentially coming onto the product," he says.

It is in the name of cleanliness and ease of maintenance that machinery company Urschel has redesigned its M6 cutting machine. The M6 dices, strip-cuts, and shreds fresh and frozen meat with its fearsome-looking teeth, but now it can be cleaned without having to place the safety guards on the floor. While Weber opted for guards on rollers that slide out of the way, Urschel has put hinged guards on this machine, which now also sports an integrated electrical enclosure and a stainless steel motor. Judging by the level of interest the machine got at its launch at Pro2Pac, regional sales manager Neal Bateman says he hopes it will do well.

Equipment company Reiser will be spending the year promoting its range of Holac dicing machines. Chris Ellis, Reiser's administration manager, says: "The entire range of Holac Dicers is designed for quick size changeovers and ease of sanitation." She adds that the cutting grids are easily changed and that portion sizes ranging from 3mm to 60mm are possible.

The dicers can cube, strip, slice and flake meat products, whether they are fresh, cooked or frozen. Ellis describes the top-of-the-range VA125N dicer as a "proven workhorse", suitable for high-volume applications. She says the machine provides high levels of cube uniformity and can "reduce out-of-spec cubes by up to 50%".

Ellis also draws attention to the VA150 dicer, which is Holac's strongest, most powerful dicer and is capable, she says, of dicing tempered meat blocks into one-inch cubes.

World view

It is a busy time for the equipment companies, constantly having to adapt to the demands of the fast-changing food industry. Rapidly changing world economies and the indomitable rise of China and India are also affecting all manufacturing industries. Weber is monitoring demand closely: "At the moment, about 70% of our machines are exported and in order to create any growth, we are forced to be active worldwide," says Rake. "We cannot afford to ignore any area of the world. What we have learnt is that wherever the standard of living is growing and wherever there is a trend to adopt Western eating cultures, there is a market for us."

Weber has sold several pieces of machinery to these markets but, at the moment, it is not as lucrative as might be thought: "If you take India for example, or China, the standard of living in these countries is certainly rising, but there isn't a culture to eat sliced meats," says Rake. "This doesn't help us, and it only will if people adopt Western eating cultures, or

only if there are a lot of hotels or catering companies."

Sydenham agrees much development is needed before Weber can really move into India and China: "You need the distribution network, otherwise you're going to have lots of little, regional manufacturers, rather than two or three larger people. Traditionally, if there are shops, you would slice on-site, but as the distribution network and the infrastructure get better, they can have a central manufacturing point. The bigger the volume gets, the more automated the manufacture gets."

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