Stephen Harding explains how powder manufacturers can maximise throughput and efficiency. He focusses on the use of ultrasonic screening equipment and how it can overcome screen blinding issues
Avid gym-goers and time-pressed managers alike have undoubtedly noticed the rise in powdered food products in recent years.
While they offer a quick fix for consumers, the production of these products can present challenges to food manufacturers.
From protein shake powders to products such as Soylent and Huel that promise a nutritionally balanced and easily consumable meal, powdered food has become popular in recent years.
These products are often marketed as quick nutritional fixes for busy individuals or those seeking a healthier lifestyle and, for many people, they are the future of food.
This has certainly contributed to the popularity of powders. In the sports nutrition market, a 2016 study from food analyst Mintel found that one in 10 Brits consumed protein powder — with 24%of participants interested in adding the powder to their regular meals to boost protein intake.
Even big brands have begun launching protein-enriched powder forms of their products, such as Mars’ protein powder versions of Mars, Snickers and Bounty launched earlier in 2017.
Likewise, the demand for powdered meals is growing. In 2015, powdered meal-replacement manufacturer Huel sold out of its product three times within the first month.
Julian Hearn, the company’s founder, commented that the popularity “really proved that the British public are tired of stressing over how to plan their diet ... we’ve had a lot of customers comment on the time they save in their day.”
This focus on time saving and efficiency mirrors the general feeling of many powder manufacturers.
For process and production engineers in these industries, the main focus is to maximise the flow of product and improve throughput to keep businesses ahead of market demand.
Yet this rising popularity of powdered food is introducing food plant maintenance engineers to the challenges that have long existed in the pharmaceutical and plastics industry — namely that of screen blinding.
Food powder production plants will include a sieve or screen of some description to ensure that the granules making up powders are of a suitable size.
Depending on the specifics of the product being manufactured, these granule sizes will vary from 0.2mm to 4.0mm and this will be reflected in the mesh used to screen these products.
However, powders — particularly food products such as powdered milk — commonly clump together, which leads to blockages in the mesh.
While maintenance engineers may not immediately notice if one or two holes are clogged, the problem gets worse as the powder inevitably creates more blockages. This results in a dip in throughput and process efficiency, as well as disruption while engineers remove and clean the mesh.
Fortunately, plant managers and production engineers do not need to rethink their process to address this issue.
By investing in an ultrasonic screening system for powders, such as those offered by Gough Engineering, engineers can disrupt the mesh enough to improve flow.
Ultrasonic screening systems use high frequency vibrations that rapidly shake the powder during the screening process, allowing any granule blockages to be eased through the mesh in the screen or sieve.
These systems operate at various frequencies, with those provided by Gough Engineering operating at up to 20,000 hertz, and can be retrofitted into existing systems.
The consumer trend for powdered foods is one borne of convenience and is unlikely to die down any time soon.
By investing in the right equipment now, food manufacturers will be able to effectively prepare for what could be the future of food.
Stephen Harding is managing director of materials management specialist Gough Engineering.