Economical vacuum supply in meat processing plants
An integrated packaging concept that guarantees that finished products are packaged hygienically, reliably, swiftly and efficiently is an important component in modern production of meat and sausage products.
Innovative meat processing plants are continuously working to optimise their production processes and integrate their packaging lines into the overall process in the best possible manner. The correct selection of vacuum generation systems substantially influences the operational reliability and cost effectiveness of the packaging process. There are various vacuum supply options depending on the size of the plant and the production quantities involved. These alternatives are detailed and considered below to find the best possible solution as regards technology and cost effectiveness.
Vacuum packaging of meat and sausage products offers a fundamental advantage: the elimination of the air in the packaging drastically reduces the oxygen content, slows down the activity of bacteria requiring oxygen, and thus significantly increases shelf life. Additionally, vacuum packaging is hygienic and enables the products to be presented in an attractive manner. A wide range of vacuum packaging machinery is available on the market, meaning that there is a suitable packaging machine for all packaging requirements. Regardless of their design or size, these packaging machines have one thing in common: for all machines, negative pressure must be generated to achieve the necessary vacuum in the packaging. This can be achieved by either an integrated or a separate vacuum pump. Other alternatives include central vacuum supply systems to which several packaging machines are connected.
Integrated vacuum pump
Normally, the vacuum pump is integrated or set up separately in the immediate vicinity for all vacuum packaging machines - from the chamber machine to the thermoforming packaging machine. Oil-lubricated rotary vane vacuum pumps are almost exclusively used for this purpose (Figure 1). This type of vacuum pump has long been a standard in vacuum packaging. Continuous further development ensures that these vacuum pumps are always state of the art, with millions in operation across the globe.
The vacuum pump, either integrated or set up separately to the packaging machine, is the simplest and most common way of generating the vacuum for packaging. Short pipes between the vacuum chamber, sealing station and the vacuum pump guarantee that the air is rapidly sucked out of the packaging. Larger-scale thermoforming packaging machines with high packaging volumes may also be fitted with a roots vacuum pump. The combination of vane and roots vacuum pumps means the pump-down time is shorter. In practice, this means shorter cycle times and thus a larger quantity of packaged products per time unit. If several thermoforming machines are operated, at least partial centralisation of the vacuum supply should be considered.
With partial centralisation (Figure 2), the rotary vane vacuum pumps are removed from the actual packaging room and integrated into a central pre-vacuum system for all packaging machines in a separate room. Dry-sealed roots vacuum pumps are installed directly in the packaging machines and connected to the central pre-vacuum generation system with a pipe system. This design ensures that the roots vacuum pumps operate at maximum efficiency and thus enable short pump-down times during packaging. Partial centralisation means the rotary vane vacuum pumps are eliminated from the production room, thus preventing the danger of aerosol emissions. With a partially centralised system, it is always logical to physically locate and operate two to a maximum of five thermoforming packaging machines together. If more packaging machines are used, the investment costs are too high due to the roots vacuum pumps in the individual machines; thus it is recommended to fully centralise the vacuum supply.
Central vacuum supply
Improved cost effectiveness
Full centralisation of the vacuum supply (Figure 3) is generally an economically viable option from six packaging machines. Usually, it is safe to assume that substantially fewer vacuum pumps are required for a central vacuum supply than for a set-up of individual vacuum pumps directly beside the packaging lines. If the vacuum supply is subsequently converted from a decentralised to a centralised system, existing vacuum pumps can be integrated into the new centralised system, reducing the investment costs. The substantially lower energy costs when using roots vacuum pumps should not be underestimated. The cooling requirements for the room climate is also reduced, due to the fact that all vacuum pumps are located outside the packaging room. This, in turn, clearly improves the total energy consumption in favour of a centralised system.
The removal of all vacuum generators in the production and/or packaging room in turn eliminates the danger of food contamination through oil aerosols. Additionally, there is no need for employees to enter the hygienically sensitive packaging room for maintenance or repair work. Clean-room conditions can therefore be created in the area surrounding the packaging lines.
The individual packaging chambers are pumped out in two stages to be able to run maximum cycle frequencies on the packaging lines. To do so, the critical pressure gradient is utilised and thus achieves the fastest possible evacuation. This requires a low vacuum pump station for the initial evacuation and a fine vacuum pump station for the evacuation on packaging pressure. The reversing valves with the corresponding control units are attached to the packaging machines to control the transition from a low to a fine vacuum.
The thermoforming vacuum pump station supplies the vacuum to the packaging machine moulding station. Here, the base film of the packaging is heated, sucked into the mould and shaped accordingly into packaging recesses.
On the one hand, this separation into various vacuum stations is necessary as the moulding and sealing functions run at different vacuums and, and on the other, as a substantially lower pump suction capacity is required for the two-stage evacuation of the sealing chamber.
The pipework serves as a vacuum buffer. This buffer is necessary to keep the packaging pressure at a constant level, even when all the packaging machines are running with the same number of cycles.
The central vacuum system can be fully automatic - it activates individual vacuum modules if a greater vacuum is required or switches off individual vacuum modules if a smaller vacuum is required. If a vacuum pump fails in the low, fine or thermoforming pump stations, then the reserve pump can be automatically activated. This ensures maximum operational safety for the vacuum supply to the packaging machines.
A central vacuum supply system has a modular design, meaning that individual modules can be disengaged for maintenance. When this happens, a reserve unit automatically activates. This means that maintenance work can be carried out during operation without affecting the production output of the packaging machines. In the centralised system, the individual rotary vane vacuum pumps are also subjected to substantially lower loads relative to the individual units, thus extending the maintenance intervals. The centralised system’s installation location outside the production area also benefits maintenance, as maintenance work does not result in interruptions to operational processes or in hygiene breaches.
Integration into the process control system
Centralised vacuum supply systems are very well suited for integration into the operational process control system (Figure 4), meaning that the vacuum plant can be controlled and monitored from a PC. Any arising indicators highlighting imminent faults can be easily identified and rectified before the machines fail. The necessary technical parameters can be permanently called up and the pressures in the vacuum lines are displayed in graph form. This allows all process-related data to be evaluated and archived. Valuable information is supplied to the quality assurance and repair departments.
In systems using two or more vacuum packaging machines, the operator or responsible head of operations should consider how the vacuum is generated. They should not forget that production (for example, with sausage fillers or tumblers) also requires vacuums that can likewise be supplied from a central vacuum supply, further improving efficiency.
The different vacuums and suction capacities at the various vacuum applications make it necessary for a vacuum specialist to precisely analyse the actual situation and then offer tailored solutions. It is important to engage specialist organisations that can offer expert advice and calculate precisely which vacuum solution is the most economically and technically viable for each individual case.
Example: Primo Smallgoods
Busch Australia Pty Ltd supplied Primo Smallgoods, one of Australia’s largest producers of ham, bacon, salami and smallgoods, with a central vacuum system for Primo’s new factory located in Wacol, Queensland. The system capacity of the rough vacuum at 5000 m³/h at 50 mbar and the fine vacuum at 2000 m³/h at 5 mbar provides very fast evacuation time, therefore reducing the cycle time and increasing production rates. The Busch central vacuum system ensures economic efficiency by offering approximately 140 kW of power reduction. The system is also cost effective due to reduced maintenance costs - as there are fewer vacuum pumps installed; the reduction of installed vacuum pumps decreased from approximately 85 units to 23. In addition to this, by centralising the vacuum pumps, approximately 33 kW of heat load could be removed from the packaging room, saving money on refrigeration costs and reflecting on the energy savings of the central vacuum systems.
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