In the past, grains such as wheat, corn, and soybeans have been processed with various machines, from grinders to sieves and centrifuges. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in demand for specialty grains such as rye, oats, rice, millet, and barley.
This increase in demand is primarily thanks to growing public awareness about food intolerances and food allergies. Specialty grains represent a great alternative to wheat and soybeans for people with these intolerances. The increased demand has also been encouraged by the popularity of gluten-free diets, such as paleo or ketogenic diets. The gluten-free product market share reached an astounding 43% in 2019, and it just keeps going up!
Specialty grains are delicate (fragile) grains that need to be processed with care; they are expensive, and if they’re meant for direct packaging, the level of product damage needs to be dialed down to a minimum.
The following blog post will discuss common issues associated with conveying these fragile specialty grain products:
- How to reduce breakage?
- How to deal with dust hazards?
- How to monitor grain quality?
- How to minimize loss and retain value in the products?
Common Grain Handling Issues
Moving stored grain from one part of a facility to another may sound like a relatively simple task. However, it can be a challenging process that should not be taken lightly if the product has value and sells at a premium price point.
The most common issues associated with grain handling include:
In any food processing plant, contamination and cross-contamination are chief concerns. This is especially true with sensitive products such as specialty grains that need to be handled in a cleanroom environment and can easily absorb dust and debris from the air.
In the food industry, contamination refers to the introduction of foreign substances that should not be in a product. Contaminants can be physical (such as a glass shard, wood splinter, a piece of metal), chemical (such as a pesticide), or biological (such as pathogenic bacteria).
There is also the possibility for cross-contamination, which occurs when one batch or lot becomes exposed to another during production or transportation (this may happen due to equipment failure, poor work practices, or human error). Cross-contamination can have serious consequences for product safety and could lead to a recall.
Grain dust is one of the most significant issues for grain processing facilities. It can cause respiratory problems and allergies in workers, increase the risk of fire or dust explosions, and clog machinery if not properly eliminated. According to a report from Dust Safety Science, in 2020, at least 165 fires and 60 explosions were caused by dust worldwide; they resulted in 88 injuries and ten fatalities.
One of the biggest contributors to the dust problem in a food plant is an open conveying system. For example, the use of open belt conveying (or open bucket elevators or roller conveyors) can lead to a significant accumulation of dust in an air-intake system and ductwork. This is the main reason why many food processors are reconsidering open conveyor systems and opting for enclosed conveyors instead.
Grains such as oats, rye, and other specialty grains are fragile, making them more prone to damage. Grains can be crushed, chipped, or broken into smaller fragments if mismanaged during the conveying process.
One of the most common reasons for fractured grain is grain-on-grain impact. This occurs when two pieces of grain impact each other and break into smaller fragments. It is more common when products are moving at very high speeds, especially if they’re not properly supported or the grain handling system has some damage (for example, a crack).
The USDA Federal Grain Inspection Service has specific standards for kernel sizes of various grain types. Damaged grain that does not meet these requirements may be downgraded, meaning the grain quality is lower, and it is sold at a lower market price.
Ideal Specialty Grain Conveyor
All of the issues described above can be eliminated or drastically reduced with the right conveying system. If you are looking to invest in a conveyor for your grain processing plant, here are some of the key features you’ll want to consider.
- Enclosed system
Enclosed grain handling equipment will protect against external factors such as dust. The closed design eliminates or reduces cross-contamination between lots/batches and minimizes exposure to contaminants in general. It also prevents material loss and improves throughput.
Another advantage is that an enclosed conveyor can be used in a cleanroom environment without compromising food safety standards.
- Temperature control
Temperature fluctuations can cause grains to deteriorate more quickly. This is especially true for specialty grains that are highly sensitive to moisture and require specific storage conditions (temperature, humidity). An enclosed conveyor will help you achieve stable temperatures throughout the conveying process to maintain grain quality.
A temperature-controlled environment is critical if these products need to travel long distances to reach the final destination.
- Optimized speed control
The conveyor speed needs to be carefully matched with your grain type and product specifications in order to reduce damage. If the grain is transported at high speeds, it can cause damage due to impact. If it is transported at very low speeds, the process may be too slow and increase the total operating costs of your facility.
Grain types can vary significantly in size and shape, so a conveyor with variable speed control will allow you to optimize efficiency without compromising product quality or food safety standards.
- Modular design
If your facility doesn’t have a lot of floor space, a conveying solution that is easy to install and does not require much maintenance will be perfect for your processing needs.
A modular design offers the benefit of being easily expandable in case you need more space later on. It can also allow you to move within an existing facility with ease, minimizing downtime during reconfiguration or relocation projects. What’s more, if you have tight spaces or sharp corners, a modular system can easily be adapted to fit your facility’s exact needs.
- Easy cleaning and sanitizing
Since you are working with food materials, it is understandable that you would want to keep your facility clean. If possible, choose a conveyor that is easy to sanitize and can be washed down frequently for maximum efficiency.
Grain conveyors with Clean-In-Place mechanisms ensure that your production lines aren’t down for maintenance for too long. They allow for fast and easy washing so you can keep your facility running smoothly year-round.
- Scheduled maintenance plan
A scheduled maintenance plan is essential to reducing unexpected downtime and minimizing product damage due to equipment failure or wear and tear over time.
You will want your conveyor manufacturer to offer a comprehensive, contractually guaranteed preventative maintenance plan. This will include thorough cleaning and inspection of the system to remove any build-up or sediments that may lead to blockages, malfunctions, and other issues.
Your conveyor contractor should perform all necessary repairs in a timely manner, so your facility remains operational with minimal interruption. A comprehensive preventative maintenance plan can also help extend the overall life of your equipment.
Tubular Drag Cable Conveyors
A system that has all these properties, and is specifically designed for conveying specialty grains and other fragile products, is a tubular drag cable system.
Tubular drag conveyors feature protective tubing that shields the product from the environment as it travels through the process. They also allow you to control the speed of grain flow with pinpoint accuracy, ensuring your grain remains in optimal condition despite travel distances or external factors.
The drag cable is encased in nylon – not in direct contact with the food material – and can be easily cleaned. The enclosed design allows you to maintain stable temperatures throughout the process while minimizing workplace hazards due to dust or other contaminants.
Transporting specialty grains can be a challenge. The most common problems with conveying this type of material include product damage, blockages, contamination and cross-contamination, and other issues caused by environmental factors.
But with careful planning and a conveyor solution designed to meet your specific needs, you can minimize product damage without compromising food safety standards or the performance efficiency of your plant.
Tubular cable conveyors offer all the benefits of an enclosed system with the exact level of control you need to transport this fragile type of product without any problems. They also feature easy installation – even in tight spaces or corners – so they don’t require a lot of retrofitting or maintenance.
A comprehensive preventative maintenance plan can also ensure your facility stays operational with minimal downtime, and the conveyor system will last for years to come.
Cablevey offers a wide range of conveyor solutions for specialty grains, including enclosed systems with optimal control speed and temperature to prevent damage during transportation. Contact us today if you need help choosing the right system for your processing plant!