When it comes to the gear units, motors and electronics that drive their factories, food and beverage processors can’t tolerate failures. If their products are not sanitary and safe, people suffer, which is why their equipment and facilities must be hygienic at all costs. At the same time, this highly competitive industry needs solutions that will provide a solid bottom line, while ensuring that production operates at maximum capacity. In this Processing Q&A, James Chandler, an expert in speed reducers, electric motors, variable frequency drives and other drive system components, shares his thoughts on recent trends in the food and beverage processing industry.
Q: Food and beverage processors have dozens of equipment providers to choose from. What are some of the more important attributes a company should look for in a supplier?
A: It’s a fair question, one that I hear quite often. Customers do have choices these days, and while I respect our competition, NORD is a global supplier with headquarters in Germany and representation in approximately 100 countries around the world. That not only gives us great depth as a company but versatility in our product offering, so much so that we can concentrate our technical expertise on a number of different industries. Food and beverage processing is one of these. Whether it is mixing, conveying, sorting or slicing, we provide durable yet economical solutions that offer excellent performance in demanding, often harsh environments. We all want clean and safe food, and it is only by utilizing the best technology possible that food and beverage processors can achieve this while remaining competitive. So, to answer your question, it all comes down to product selection and technical expertise. That is what’s most important.
Q: What are some of those technologies, and why are they important?
A: Without going too far into the weeds, there are a number of industries — food and beverage among them — that are leaning heavily towards complete (reducer/motor/variable frequency drives or inverter) and efficient drive solutions. These provide a great deal of versatility in that you can easily adjust output speeds without having to change belts or gear ratios. Our IE5+ hygienic motor, for example, is a permanent magnet, synchronous motor that requires an inverter to provide high efficiencies and continuous torque across a broad operating speed range. And our NORDAC FLEX decentralized inverter can be wall- or motor-mounted (wall mount only for IE5+), which requires less wiring and is easier to install than panel-mounted inverter solutions. Customers are also looking for the highest-efficiency motor and gear solutions possible, as these reduce operating costs and increase operation life — 95% or higher is achievable and even expected in many applications. There’s more, but one interesting trend is the move toward aluminum drives with a sealed surface conversion over stainless steel.
Q: Stainless steel has been a standard in the food and beverage industry for decades. Please explain your last statement on aluminum and "surface conversion," and how it benefits a customer?
A: I completely agree there’s a perception that stainless steel is the best solution available, and in specific applications, it could be. However, there is often a need for an alternative, which is why NORD developed its nsd tupH surface conversion for aluminum products in 2012. It is applied via a two-step process, ultimately producing a hard, chemically bonded outer layer that is approximately 8 microns thick. Unlike paint, it is very durable. It doesn’t chip, it doesn’t flake and it’s extremely resistant to the caustic cleaners commonly used in the food and beverage processing industry. We have customers with upwards of 60,000 hours on their aluminum gear and motor housings with no appreciable wear. Again, stainless steel has its place, but for food and beverage processing environments at least, this solution provides a lower cost, lighter weight, hygienic alternative that is available in more configurations than the standard inline and right-angle options. Specifically, NORD offers nsd tupH surface protection for our aluminum inline, right-angle bevel, right-angle worm and parallel shaft units, as well as our smooth-surface motors and decentralized control products, giving customers a complete system with wash-down level protection.
Q: What about Industry 4.0? Is this becoming a big thing in food and beverage processing, as it is with the greater manufacturing/processing community?
A: Many of our customers are talking about the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, which uses sensors in various systems that continuously monitor values such as vibration, operating temperatures, motor loading and so on. This data can then be uploaded to an on-premises server or cloud-based software system. NORD calls this condition monitoring. It gives our customers the ability to collect in-process data for analysis, ultimately allowing them to make better decisions and optimize their processes. For example, they might use it to speed up certain areas or slow others based on operational needs. It also allows them to monitor for failed components, with the option to alert someone via text or email in real-time when a system goes down. That is critical in the food and beverage industry. But it goes further than that. Recording data on production systems gives users predictive maintenance capabilities. And when you can predict component failure, you can schedule around it, avoiding downtime and expensive emergency repair costs.
Q: In your experience, do you see that customers make common mistakes, or miss certain opportunities, when designing a system?
A: We all make mistakes, which is why NORD likes to take a consultative, collaborative role in project planning. In my 15 years with the company — the last nine of which have been spent as a key markets manager — I have striven to make sure that the customer, the integrator and we as the component manufacturer are all on the same page, and that we have a solid understanding of an application before making any decisions. That means a comprehensive discussion of the end-user’s requirements and a thorough vetting of the OEM’s design and engineering capabilities, as well as an open discussion of our product capabilities upfront. I have found that when you have all those folks involved at that level, then there is not much window for error. That is our approach.
Q: What are food and beverage processors requesting in terms of support and service? Given the current situation in the U.S. and elsewhere, should they stock their own replacement parts and plan on “going it alone” in the event of equipment failure?
A: Speaking for the U.S., I can tell you that we currently have 40 direct manufacturer representatives and a large distribution network, with more than 600 distribution locations throughout North America. So, to answer your question, no, customers will not have to “go it alone.” Not only are our representatives available for customer support, but there’s an 800 number they can call from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Central Time, a 911 emergency phone service that operates 24/7/365, our myNORD online customer portal where customers can select, configure, order and track their products, and an online parts shop for those who are looking for solutions overnight, during the weekend, or on holidays. And as far as inventory, NORD actively manages its supply chain and makes the necessary adjustments to ensure our stocking levels are maintained, even in a time like this. I can honestly say we have the best lead times in the industry, and NORD can help manage our customer’s inventory by reducing spare parts stock, especially given the predictive maintenance capabilities just discussed.
Q: Manufacturers and processors of all kinds are concerned with ROI and uptime, and those in food and beverage are no different. Are you able to share any recent success stories?
A: The first one that comes to mind is from an integrator in Switzerland that used NORD drive technology to build an automated, hygienic canning line for baby formula and other powdered goods. The motors are connected via PROFINET, simplifying setup and communication. And because all of the main components are modular, it can be easily reconfigured as the need arises. Similarly, there is a chicken processing facility in Puerto Rico that replaced all of its painted drive units six years ago with ones made of nsd tupH-treated aluminum, and a shellfish processor in the Netherlands that had comparable results with nsd-tupH corrosion protection, even though they are working in a saltwater environment, which is quite harsh on machinery. In fact, the technical service manager there said the NORD drives lasted at least five times longer than their previous gear motors. There are dozens of similar stories on the NORD website, so long story short, I'm very confident as to the durability, cleanliness and cost-effectiveness of these solutions.
Q: Is there any other advice you can offer to someone in the food and beverage processing industry who might be looking at investment in a new or replacement system?
A: As I said at the beginning, customers have a lot of options to choose from, as well as new technology with which they may be unfamiliar. It can get confusing. Whomever they decide to go with at the end, I encourage prospects to do their research and gather all the facts before proceeding on any project. Aside from some of the new technologies already discussed, our systems are modular, so they can be configured to suit practically any application using our standard offerings, reducing or eliminating the need for costly custom components. Energy-efficiency is a top priority at NORD, with a broad offering of compact, lightweight and, of course, hygienic solutions. And if you are in a jam and need to scale up quickly, our lead-times are among the shortest in the industry. Our value proposition is quite simple: we have a versatile footprint in the food and beverage processing industry, with a huge number of options to choose from and the technical expertise to guide customers in the right direction. At the same time, we listen to the customer and do an excellent job of delivering products that meet their requirements, keeping them running at maximum efficiency.