Ongoing development of faster, more efficient cutting, slicing and dicing equipment for the meat industry is helping the sector reduce its so-called carbon footprint.
The focus of development varies among companies, but most involve systems that use less energy and manpower, cutting down on electricity consumption and labour use, and improving productivity rates.
Experts say reducing the industry's carbon footprint is relevant and not a cheap gimmick.
Many companies acknowledge it has been a tough time for the sector, but that business is now picking up as the economy improves.
Bryant, the agent for Tipper Tie Alpina high-speed bowl choppers, says efficiency is being driven by the use of direct current motors. Managing director Ian Bryant says its machines mainly run on DC motors, which he claims are highly efficient and more economic than AC motors.
"When first powering up a DC machine, there are no spikes or peaks of electrical surge, whereas with an AC machine you will get a peak," he says. "A lot of electricity companies and boards now charge all their electricity at their highest peak rate, so if you are turning on two or three bowl choppers at the same time and getting a big spike, all your electricity will be charged at that peak rate."
DC motors also get to maximum torque quicker than AC motors, so are faster at reaching full speed but will require a regular change of the carbon brushes. AC motors are virtually maintenance-free though, he acknowledges.
However, Bryant claims that DC-powered machines give a quicker cut time, protein extraction and batch production, the result being less energy consumption.
The precise shape of the knife blade and the gap between it and the bowl is also important in terms of maximising cutting efficiency, he says.
In terms of value for money, the industry is beginning to appreciate the importance of using original blades rather than copies.
Although original Alpina blades can cost up to 40% more than copy blades, they are more efficient because they have precise tolerances matched to the bowl chopper and blade shapes to maximise cutting effectiveness. Using a copy blade can add 20% to cutting time, adds Bryant.
"An incorrectly sharpened blade can put up to 150% more load on the front edge of that blade and consequently more wear and tear on the machine and the drive. A copy blade is a false economy.
Some of our bigger customers have seen the light; one manufacturer has changed to our blade and has been running them on its machine for two to three weeks without sharpening them. Previously they had been sharpening the blades three times a day."
Union Food Machinery has also gone down the route of DC-powered machinery for greater efficiency. Many of the machines that it supplies use significantly less power than some machines on the market, claims managing director Malcolm Burgess.
"Reducing energy consumption as part of the mission to reduce the carbon footprint is relevant and not a cheap gimmick. It's very important to people, and they consistently remind us about it.
"On our cutters, we tend to use DC motors or inverted AC motors to reduce power consumption. DC motors uses less power and we're now offering variable speed AC motors for customers who don't want DC motors. We continuously try to make our equipment not only more efficient, but also to reduce energy consumption, as most of our customers are paying for their electricity on peak demand."
The challenge to reduce energy consumption is particularly relevant, as some of the highest use of electricity in meat manufacturing plants is associated with bowl choppers, grinders and refrigeration equipment, particularly when frozen raw meat is involved.
Energy efficiency is the main issue that crops up in discussions over new machinery, along with safety, performance, hygiene, and ease of cleaning. Customers' response to the economic situation has been mixed, says Burgess. "The common theme is hesitancy to invest to the same extent as two years ago.
Cash flow management is essential to all businesses, but must be balanced against potentially expensive downtime on high-capacity lines. Equipment manufacturers must look to offer output and quality of end-product with reduced power consumption to assist in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions."
A programme of carbon reduction is ongoing within the design specification of equipment, he says.
Efficiency and reliability have been the key expectations seen by Reiser from customers investing in new cutting, slicing and dicing equipment.
While there are signs of greater optimism in the broader UK economy, the Milton Keynes-based machinery supplier has noticed significant changes in customers' approach to capital investment during the economic downturn.
"In the fourth quarter of 2008, the mood was more pessimistic, particularly for smaller businesses," says sales coordinator Robert Reiser. "Broadly speaking, smaller producers have been more cautious with their purchases. They are putting off investment whenever they can."
Businesses at the smaller end of the processing industry are as valuable as bigger players to the US-owned company, though.
"Building relationships with customers is very important to us and we treasure our smaller clients," says Reiser. "We are trying to offer attractive terms through our own financing. Customers don't have to go to a bank or put their house on the block; the machine is the collateral."
For customers with larger throughput, investment in cutting, slicing and dicing equipment has continued, but with changing demands, he adds. "Some of the bigger processors, spending £100,000-£200,000 on a single piece of kit, have cut down on the payback time, expecting a return on their investment in six months or even less."
Signs of a recovery in confidence are, however, emerging across the board, he says, claiming Reiser is well-placed to benefit from the more positive mood, with its range of food processing and packaging equipment, including Holac and Seydelmann machinery in the cutting, slicing and dicing sector.
The supplier offers a turnkey solution for processors and manufacturers, from planning through to installation and after-sales servicing.
Among the latest updates to the Holac range which can cube, strip, shred or flake all fresh and frozen meat and cheese products is a new Intralox belt on the 28CT slicer.
"It improves yield and increases belt life," says Reiser. "Customers have seen dramatic savings on both raw materials and parts with this improvement. Less slippage on the belt can mean yield increases from 3% to as high as 6%, leading to impressive savings, particularly with an expensive protein such as lamb."
Other models in the Holac range, manufactured in Germany, include the AUT30, suitable for creating uniform cubes of fresh meat during the dicing of beef, pork, chicken or turkey for retail packs, and the AUT200 for high-speed cheese cutting and grating.
Reiser has also supplied the German Seydelmann line of cutters, grinders and mixers in the US since 1961 and, in the UK, for 18 months.
"Seydelmann fits very well with our vision," says Reiser. "It's high-end, top-of-the-line equipment, which is hand-finished and the only machinery of its kind coming completely in stainless steel." New to the Seydelmann range is a smaller 30-litre bowl cutter, with the larger models catering for capacity up to 750 litres.
While regular updating of the machinery lines it supplies, to improve efficiency and cut back on wastage of raw materials and time, offers tangible cost savings and environmental benefits for individual customers, Reiser is also focused on the bigger picture in terms of the overall performance of its supplier partners.
"We do take environmental concerns very seriously and keep watch over all our suppliers," says Reiser. "Direct enquiries relating to the environmental credentials of specific pieces of machinery tend to come from the big supermarkets, under pressure to reduce packaging. Our Repak line of thermoformers utilises rapid air forming, which allows suppliers to use 15% thinner film, resulting in substantial cost and environment savings."
Manufacturer Treif has tackled the issue of wear and tear in machinery by patenting a dynamic hydraulic system (DHS) in its range of nearly a dozen dicing machines. By using a frequency controller, the DHS demands only as much energy from the hydraulics as it needs for the piston in-feed.
Conventional systems without DHS use the maximum amount of oil in the pump for every dice size/infeed length, even if this force is not required, Treif claims. Treif DHS regulates the energy supply correspondingly smaller dice sizes demand less energy than larger ones.
Machines employing DHS exhibit less wear and tear, keeping service costs to a minimum and giving the equipment a longer life, says the company.
Terry Starkey, marketing consultant for AEW Delford, says: "Processors are demanding improved components, design evolution, minimum power usage, higher speeds and greater efficiency."
One of the greatest increases in efficiency has come about through the introduction of so-called 'vision' technology to achieve greater accuracy in slicing and, with it, improved yields and output.
Vision technology uses a camera to watch the slicing and transmits information to a computer, which can then automatically send adjustments to the machine's blade, so that even thicknesses of slice are achieved.
Robots play a great part in efficiency too. Robots pick up the slices and place them in the tray, so they are untouched by human hand and this helps with consistent, perfect presentation. "We spend 5-7% of our 600m group turnover on research and development," says Starkey.
One trend is towards investment in complete lines. These can include slicer, checkweigher, robotic lifting arms, wrappers, and weigh-price labellers. "We're now able to provide almost everything in a one-stop shop."
Interfood Technology is the sole distributor in the UK and Ireland for the Weber range of slicers. Rob Unwin, director of Interfood Slicing, a division of Interfood, says blade technology is vitally important to the slicing process.
"The Weber 905 high speed slicer is our latest addition and is the biggest in its class, with a cutting throat width of up to 620mm and heights of up to 200mm. This slicer is capable of cutting six 4x4 logs simultaneously or three traditional 160mm x 120mm formed ovals."
Increasing the size of a slicer may be a pure feat of engineering, but what is fundamental to achieving the holy grail of consistent slice quality, high acceptance rates and maximising yield is the science of blade technology.
A blade's size, shape, material, profile, coating and cutting angle are critical to the performance of a slicer. This is highlighted by the fact that Weber has a section of its research and development department dedicated solely to blade technology.
With pressed stainless steel round blades offering significantly improved cutting results compared to those made from regular steel, individual blades are designed to meet the needs of each specific application and translate into cost savings, as well as helping to reduce the environmental cost of the machine.
A significantly longer blade life helped by the application of a wear and corrosion-resistant alloy to the cutting area means fewer replacement blades. Improved blade technology also reduces the impact pressure of the cutting edge, which lessens the requirement for tempering and crust freezing, thereby reducing the heavy energy usage in the process.
High-speed slicing cannot be achieved at the expense of quality or control, says Unwin. Even if the blade is in intensive usage, manufacturers cannot afford wedges, thick slices, thin slices or feathering to impact on slice quality. By minimising giveaway, a slicing operation is maximising yield again a factor in reducing the environmental impact of an operation by gaining increased productivity from the resources employed.
Interfood will be showing the new Weber 905, along with the latest robotic loading technology on its stand Q060 at Foodex 2010 in Birmingham next year.
There is light at the end of the recession tunnel, says Interfood director Mark Bishop. The first six months of 2009 had seen many trials and meetings that, in the last two months, have started to translate into firm orders. Nevertheless, customers are still taking longer to make investment decisions, meaning the lull will last for a while yet.