Take a weight off your mind

Meat processors are always under pressure from demanding multiples – a trend that is further pronounced in the current climate. Adam Baker looks at how weighing system suppliers are helping customers take the strain.

Having a nice juicy contract with a major supermarket chain can mean a lot of pressure for a meat processor. Sure, the money might be good, but while one mistake with an order may be seen as a statistic, making more than one can be seen as a tragedy. There are plenty more meat processors ready to muscle in on a deal with a national, or even international, retailer, so selecting the right equipment is key to opening and securing the door to lucrative sales opportunities. 
Weighing machines are no exception. A meat processor needs to deliver what it is contracted to deliver and inaccurate merchandise can mean both unhappy suppliers and wasted raw material, and meat does not come cheap in the first place. Suppliers of weighing equipment are fully aware of the modern-day pressures facing their customers and have designed products to meet these demands. Reliability, efficiency and accessibility are all central factors for the marketplace because what the market wants, the market gets.

Flexible friends

Espera Scales managing director Peter Kettell reckons the major changes in what meat industry firms are seeking from weighing machinery lie in the labelling requirements. “Whereas, in the past, it was acceptable for companies to sell weigh labelling machines capable of printing a few basic font styles, with a limited number of fixed label formats, such machines would no longer be flexible enough to meet customers’ demands,” he says. “Supermarket buyers are dictating to suppliers exactly what information will be printed on the labels and which specific font style. These requirements can change at any time and with little notice.” 
For this reason, Kettell says customers are looking for more flexible weigh-labelling systems, which enable them to create and edit label formats as they require. 
Processors also desire a system that enables the addition of new font styles, without reliance on the equipment manufacturer and Kettell says the use of IT can make this need a reality. 
“Another concern is the level of simplicity to operate the machine. Companies can have quite high staff turnover in the packing areas, so they need operation of the machine to be as user-friendly as possible,” he says. 
With pack and label sizes changing between production runs, it is also important that any adjustment to the labelling machines are as simple as possible. Espera recognises that its customers have found that machines with manual adjustments can be adjusted wrongly or not at all in production runs. For this reason, it has made automatic control of all positioning systems, on entry of the required product code for the labelling run, a key feature of its machines.
Kettell also finds that a major concern for the industry is keeping the machines running, adding that how long it takes to recover from a fault situation is paramount for companies’ production efficiency. “For this reason all new Espera weigh-labelling machines are capable of remote control over the internet,” he says. “From any location in the world with internet access, it is possible to operate an Espera weigh-labelling system and see the status of every switch, photo cell, motor, and print head. If an operator has made set-up mistakes, they can be seen remotely and corrected.”
One of the challenges now facing Espera, says Kettell, is the marketing requirements from supermarkets, which are starting to expect the same type of packaging presentation on variable-sized meat products as they have on a fixed-sized boxes of Weetabix, for example. 
It is quite easy to apply a label or print onto a pack in exactly the same position if that pack is the same size and the print is exactly the same every time, he says. But where the label information changes for every pack and the pack size can vary, such accurate label positioning is a much greater challenge.

High capacity system

Espera’s product launches this year include a new high-capacity weigh-labelling system, the ES6000 series, which is capable of automatically weighing and labelling heavy, bulky items such as boxes, crates, whole turkeys, vacuum-packed primals and cooked meat logs. The ES6000 series can weigh and label items at up to 40 items per minute and up to 60kg. Labels can be applied to the front, top, back or side of products.
“Weighing technology has not changed tremendously over the years,” says Kettell. “It has become faster and more reliable. What has changed is what we can do with the weight data. Machines are also easier to repair. Construction is designed to make repairs quicker and easier.” 
Ten years ago, an engineer would dismantle a machine to change a conveyor, it is now a simple matter of ‘plug and play’, with no tools required. 
When it is finally time to choose weighing equipment, Torsten Giese, marketing manager at Ishida Europe, reckons the decision comes down to a few factors. “That the equipment can weigh efficiently, at good speed, accuracy and high consistency, and can handle sticky meat products like ready meals,” says Giese. “That it can reduce companies’ costs, due to the tight margins when dealing with UK supermarkets.” 
Suppliers should also be able to offer a complete automation solution, he says. This may involve conveying, weighing, depositing/filling, sauce dispensing, x-ray inspection or metal detection, checkweighing, labelling, seal-testing with label control, and end-of-line, pick-and-place packing.
Giese believes there is still quite a low automation level in the meat industry and that labour-intensive packing processes involve many challenges, with a shifting workforce that moves from country to country, language issues that arise from this and a lack of motivation to carry out repetitive work. 
This can also be detrimental to the quality of the work, with inconsistency, hygiene issues and high staff turnover all affecting the speed and quality of manual operations. 
There is also the issue of “complying with stricter quality controls, imposed by regulations and retailer expectations”, adds Giese where “quality control can only be improved using automatic methods or a huge workforce”. 
Over the years, Ishida has adapted its machines to handle fresh food, with the introduction of Fresh Food Weighers, featuring fully automated hand-feeding and screw-feeder weighers. Soon its machines will be using screws instead of radial feeders to transfer sticky meat to weigh hoppers. 
Weighing equipment is an essential, yet often taken-for-granted component of any modern meat processing operation, claims Herbert Industrial product and technical manager Graham Dorney. “In these difficult times, food processors need to know that the investments they are making in any new items of equipment will give them years of reliable service, while providing value for money and as short a payback period as possible. 
“This is why Herbert products support additional functionality beyond the basic essentials of setting target weight limits and measurement. The ability to capture live production data and statistics, and to measure operator, workstation or production line efficiencies, provides the processor with core information, upon which they can base business decisions.”

Central control

In the meat processing industry, robust construction, easy cleaning and simple and reliable operation are all essential aspects in the design of weighing systems, says Dorney, and are at the core of Herbert Industrial’s business.
He adds,“Likewise, the centralisation of product and machine set-up data via equipment networks and links to host factory systems, speeds up the process of product set-up and changeovers, as well as improving consistency of product presentation. The ability to apply and capture traceability data, either at a batch level or even down to the individual retail pack has become increasingly important.”
The Gemini Lightning automatic weigh-label system is an example of this technology in action, Dorney says. In recent installations, multiple machines have been linked to the customer’s factory control systems. 
Production orders with raw material batch information are scanned at each production line, triggering the downloading of up-to-the-minute product set-up data, such as latest price per kilo or use-by dates, to the machine from the central factory system. 
As well as setting target weight limits or the average weigh packing parameters, the machine also configures itself automatically for the next product run, with the automatic adjustment of pack guides and labeller positions. By centrally controlling product data and machine set-up, errors and inconsistencies by machine operators are avoided.
“The weighing equipment industry is no stranger to operating within legislative frameworks,” adds Dorney. “Because of the fundamental requirement for weighing transaction integrity, weighing equipment is subject to metrology legislation such as the EC-wide Measuring Instruments Directive, effective since 2006.” 
Manufacturers also need to keep abreast of changes in EC and worldwide design and construction legislation, which covers aspects such as mechanical and electrical safety, electromagnetic compatibility, and recycling. Changes in the requirements for products that are being processed, such as traceability and nutritional marking, and the new GS1 Databar bar-coding initiative also drive changes to machinery and software design. 
One of Herbert’s more recent products, popular with meat processors, is the Savaweigh Scale and Average Weight Packing Control System, used to control packing to average weight, minimise product give-away and measure productivity. 
Herbert says Savaweigh Scales have a simple user interface and are linked into a central control PC, which monitors the live average weight batch parameters, and changes the target weight indicators on the individual scales to drive down give-away. 
The output rate from each scale and its operator, are monitored and reported in graphical and numerical formats, to determine piece rate and productivity levels. 
This is typically used on average weight packs that are manually made up from a loose assembly of smaller items, such as diced meat product. On typical applications, says Herbert, reduction in product give-away provided by the Savaweigh Scales has resulted in payback periods of less than six months.
Although cost, build quality and software funtionality are all considerations when purchasing weighing equipment, Herbert also recognises this is only one part of the equation. Dorney says: “The ability to manage customer projects, from initial sales contact to delivery and installation, as well as training, documentation and technical support are all part of the overall package.”