Delivering a convenient mixture of high protein, low sugar and essential nutrients, nutrition bars are experiencing a surge in popularity. The global protein bar market was valued at $4.66B in 2019 and is projected to reach $7.03B by 2027. Sitting at the heart of this growth industry is TruFood, which produces millions of nutrition bars each week for its brand partners. TruFood’s products are sold at retail and club stores throughout North America, Europe and Mexico, as well as through its network of online distributors.
In 2019, increased customer demand prompted TruFood to embark on an expansion project to boost its manufacturing capabilities. High on the list for improvement was the company’s ingredient delivery system; a multi-step manual process that required significant time and labor to prepare and transfer fine and coarse ingredient powders and inclusions such as chocolate chunks, soy crisps and cookie pieces to the mixer. Not only did TruFood require an automated ingredient transfer solution that would increase yield and improve line efficiency, but it also needed to guarantee food safety by reducing the risk of allergen cross-contamination between changeovers for different product ranges.
Following discussions with several equipment manufacturers, TruFood was won over by the benefits afforded by the SANILux Tubular Chain Conveyor and Luxme’s problem-solving capabilities. “As well as efficiently transferring screened and weighed powders and inclusions to the mixer, the ability of the SANILux to reduce the time required for a sanitary changeover and remove all allergens from the conveying system were ultimately behind our decision to partner with Luxme. Their willingness to work within our constrained space requirements also impressed us,” said Mike Berko, project engineer, TruFood.
Avoiding allergen cross-contamination
As a producer of nutrition bars with a wide range of certifications and claims — including kosher, non-GMO, organic, halal, gluten-free, fair trade and sugar-free — TruFood takes its commitment to avoiding allergen cross-contamination extremely seriously. They are right to do so, as each year, 200,000 people in America require emergency medical care for allergic reactions, with 1 in 10 adults and 1 in 13 children suffering from food allergies. “Food safety is a critical responsibility for us as a food manufacturer,” Berko said.
Consequently, TruFood faced a variety of challenges when seeking to upgrade its manufacturing operation. “We work with mid-sized emerging brands as well as established consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies commercializing new product platforms,” Berko said. “With this comes additional complexity, requiring sophisticated systems to protect and propel their brands. To better support these partners, we not only required more flexible and consistent operations, but also easier, more efficient changeovers and sanitation protocols. Sanitary design and ease of cleaning are forefront in our minds when evaluating any new solution.”
Fully allergen sanitized in 60 minutes
To meet TruFood’s requirements, Luxme specified its food-grade, USDA-accepted SANILux Tubular Chain Conveyor technology. An enclosed, self-cleaning system, it protects ingredients from atmospheric, airborne contaminants and other bacterial elements. The conveying discs on the chain assembly for the clean-in-place (CIP) washdown application are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The SANILux maintains a safe and sanitized processing system, significantly reducing the risk of product recall due to cross-contamination. The automated CIP technology ensures the conveyor is fully sanitized in just 60 minutes — unlike competitor offerings which can take multiple shifts — and is validated with allergen swab testing. For TruFood, this has delivered significant benefits: “The SANILux can go from dry to dry, fully allergen sanitized, in just one hour — about 10% of the time it took us previously when the process was manual,” Berko said. “As well as improving food safety, this has translated into an uplift in our production capacity as changeover of the delivery system is achieved in a fraction of the time required on our other production lines, minimizing downtime. By removing a manual process, it has also resulted in labor savings.”
The conveyor itself comprises a fixed drive and tension assembly, which automatically tensions the chain continuously during the process and regulates it according to friction, product flow and variation in atmospheric/product temperature. Capable of 300, 500 or 1,100 ft3/hr capacities, the system is suited for the automatic conveying of all types of food, at any stage of receiving, processing and packaging.
The SANILux has been running successfully at TruFood’s manufacturing facility since it was installed in May 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping the globe. At the time the TruFood solution was due to be installed, the Canadian Government mandated a three-week COVID-19 shutdown, and travel restrictions prevented Luxme engineers from being on-site for set-up and commissioning.
Keen to avoid any impact on the project, the two companies worked together in conjunction with the support of Solid Solutions to ensure successful integration — TruFood’s in-house engineering team completed the installation work, with Luxme carrying out virtual commissioning. Although Luxme’s technicians have experience of performing virtual commissioning for clients outside of Canada and the US, this was a step into the unknown for TruFood. “Despite the unique challenges of COVID-19, the installation and commissioning of the new system was a success,” Berko said.
Also crucial to the overall success of the project was ensuring the SANILux could successfully interface with other upstream and downstream equipment on the line. Real-time communication with adjacent batch screening, weighing and mixing equipment is achieved over Ethernet, while a PLC interface receives and sends signals to coordinate operation of the conveyor with both upstream screening and a downstream mixer. Running at speeds of 54 feet per minute to optimize process time requirements for multiple ingredients, the 8-inch diameter SANILux boasts a maximum system throughput of 25,000 lbs/hr. TruFood is currently operating at approximately 80% capacity, as the system was specifically designed to accommodate additional future requirements.
Ensuring product quality
Besides fulfilling TruFood’s need for a more efficient, more sanitary ingredient delivery system, the SANILux has also delivered further improvements. “The ability to consistently clean the conveyor to an allergen-free state is priceless, allowing us to confidently deliver products to our customers without the risk of cross-contamination,” said Berko. “In addition, decreased process steps for ingredient delivery and shorter sanitation times have contributed to a significant uplift in our production capacity. We are also benefiting from gentler product handling, meaning ingredients retain their size, shape and appearance, and are delivered to the mixer intact. Ingredient fines have also been reduced, ensuring a higher quality product, and powder ingredient dosing to the mixer is now automated and repeatable, meaning we can be confident in the consistency of our products.”
Furthermore, the SANILux’s enclosed chain-in-tube construction creates a sealed conveying solution, eliminating waste spillage and the risk of external pathogens or allergens entering the material flow to the mixer. “This increases confidence in product integrity during the dry ingredient processing function, as well as reducing risk to personnel — the chance of water spillages and associated slips and falls, or contact with harmful chemicals during sanitation, have been eliminated,” Berko said. “In addition, because there is no variability in the sanitary washdown process — all parameters are pre-programmed and consistently repeated — false sanitary starts to production runs are prevented, minimizing waste. An efficient use of cleaning chemicals has also led to sustainability benefits in the form of reduced energy, chemical and water requirements.”
Building a solid partnership
Consistent with TruFood’s values for product quality, employee safety and consummate customer service, the introduction of the Luxme SANILux technology has proved a seamless fit, helping to increasing stakeholder value. With management’s support, TruFood continues to seek business strengthening opportunities that combine advanced food processing and material handling technology with best business practices.
For TruFood, working with Luxme has been an unqualified success and an experience they are keen to repeat. “From the project planning phase through to completion, Luxme has been a solid partner,” said Berko. “Their ability to work through obstacles such as space constraints and COVID travel restrictions, as well as their continued support since start-up, have been outstanding. Looking ahead, we are already thinking of ways to enhance our operations further by partnering with Luxme again: for example, employing the SANILux to improve the transfer of our baked products from the processing area to the packaging area, and facilitating better handling of our bagged ingredients with Luxme’s Automatic Bag Slitter.”
The successful application of the SANILux sanitary CIP conveyor has given the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania team insight into how leading-edge technology can be applied to benefit TruFood, its employees and its customers.
Rick Leroux is vice president of Luxme International.