Sandwich manufacturing equipment manufacturers are having to respond quickly to new developments in the sector, such as the current demand for quartered sandwiches for patient feed in the healthcare sector. Meanwhile, production line robotics are beginning to look like an affordable option for medium-sized sandwich producers in the near future in terms of pay-back. We talk to Millitec, and a number of other manufacturers, about their latest offerings.
Millitec Food Systems Ltd manufactures mixers, ultrasonic cutters, depositors, butterers, sanitisers and production conveyors, and is currently developing an innovative new automated sandwich line for launch this spring. This is a completely different way of making sandwiches because the bread is held captive on the production conveyor. It is still manufactured on a PU (fabric) conveyor belt, but offers the considerable advantage of being very easy to ‘hygiene,’ since it comes with a small Clean in Place (CIP) system and is constantly washed and cleaned.
It can also be installed in a couple of hours, without expensive initial infrastructure work, says Richard Ledger, Managing Director. It can just be wheeled into place, leveled up and it’s ready to go. Because the bread can be held in place, fillings can be automatically deposited and spread and indexed. Additionally, because it is an open belt construction, it can have mixed automatic and manual use: excitingly, Millitec is currently working on protein depositing robots which can work alongside staff on the production line without the need for extensive guarding.
“The protein depositing robots will start to be produced around the middle of the year. The line is designed to take the robots for the protein depositing. When they’re ready to go on, they will just slot into place,” says Richard Ledger. “If you go into a sandwich production hall in five years time, I believe you will see just three or four people and four or five robots, instead of the 20 or so people you would find currently.
“To install our basic indexing line without all the equipment will cost you £70,000, with £20-40,000, for each station you want to go on it – depending on what you want it to do. The complete line with depositors and cutting is going to come in well under £250,000 – a third to a quarter of the price of some other products, with the same performance, and you can clean it.
“There’s going to be a massive take up on it, and it’s going to be affordable for the middle players in the industry. There’s no way they would want to pay £1m for an automated line, but they will get the payback on £250,000 to justify putting it in.”
The company is also developing new depositors to go onto the new automated line; unlike standard pneumatic, volumetric systems, they are servo controlled, fully adjustable from the central control of the line and all networked back to the line management system. If the weight varies, it automatically changes the settings in the depositor to maintain a constant weight. Prototypes have been tested and the first production units were due to be shipped at the end of January.
“Everyone in the food production industry is increasingly looking to manufacturing innovation to deliver improved business benefits. This will take costs out because you are taking staff off the production line and it also takes variability out of the product – there’s a consistency in the manufacture of the product, which you don’t get if you have people on board.”
Another new development at the company is a new quartering cutter. In the healthcare sector, a lot of the sandwiches that go into ‘patient feed’ are now being requested as quarters, rather than half-cuts. This is obviously having a big impact on the manufacturers. “Cutting into quarters isn’t the problem, the difficulty is gathering the quarters together and putting them into a pack that looks presentable for the consumer. This is what we’re working on at the moment,” adds Richard.
Millitec has also set up a software house and has four staff working full time on software development. The first product relevant to the food industry that will be launched is a cloud-based HACCP system, which runs on the full spectrum of media from PC’s to tablets.
“You can monitor all your control points around the factory. It can also handle data collection such as barcode scanners and temperature probes through a Bluetooth link. There is nothing like this on the market at the moment. That’s going to be launched in March.”
‘If you go into a sandwich production hall in five years time, I believe you will see just three or four people and four or five robots, instead of the 20 or so people you would find currently’. Richard Ledger
“There’s a huge investment in R&D – probably around 20% of turnover. The tie-up with Samworths, announced last August, has given us the platform to put the investment into the business because it has taken us from being a small business, which was how it was when I started, to a higher level of professionalism. We have recently accredited to ISO 9001, which we wouldn’t have gone for otherwise. It’s probably leapfrogged us 10 years in six months in terms of development.” The Samworth’s tie-up has been welcomed by Millitec customers.
Adam Newland, Operations Director at Raynor Sandwiches, commented last year; “We have used Millitec machines for many years and have seen the company grow organically to become a global machinery supplier. “The company has always been strong on innovative ideas but this investment is allowing them to bring concepts to market much more quickly. We are already seeing the benefit from their new R&D team as, I am sure, others in the industry will do. It is good news for the whole industry to have a strong European equipment and technology supplier with a well invested research capability.”
Millitec’s biggest hurdle currently is looking for new premises, with capacity reached at the current unit. “It’s a constant battle trying to squeeze our current production through our current site; our order books are full until May, which is a good and bad place to be. But we will be in new premises within six months.”