Hold the Cheese? Not for This Busy Iowa Production Plant

Minnesota Company Uses Plastic Energy Chain to Help Solve Processing Pain

By Dan Thompson, Product Manager for igus energy chain systems

Like any industry, cheese manufacturers are susceptible to production downtime due to the breakdown of mechanical equipment. Which is precisely what happened at an Iowa creamery when a stainless steel chain in a finishing vat failed after just one year.

The Minnesota manufacturer had provided the finishing vat for the cheese company, which was in the process of replacing aging capital equipment and looking toward future expansion. The  creamery, which has been in business for more than 100 years, makes eight varieties of cheese and has an annual revenue in excess of $20 million.

The Vice President of Project Engineering for Advanced Process Technologies, Tom Russell, needed a swift solution. The chain had been showing signs of fatigue and when it quit entirely, it dramatically impacted production for the cheese manufacturer, which operated on a 24/7 schedule.           “It was a tremendous burden for the plant,’’ Russell said. “I needed to move it along as fast as I could. I thought it would take weeks.”

After some quick work with igus, a Germany manufacturer of motion plastics, the cheese producer resumed its round-the-clock production schedule within 12 hours. “I was pleasantly surprised at how fast the solution went into motion,’’ Russell said. “I almost couldn’t get down to Iowa fast enough to see it installed.”

Fixing the Finishing Vat

The energy chain in the application worked on the carriage of an enclosed finishing vat. The vat took cheese curd and whey slurry from a cheese vat, removed the whey, salted the cheese and blew the curd to a packaging room for bulk filling.

The carriage has a traverse and stir 480Vac gear motors as well as various sensors for positioning. The system included six cheese vats, four enclosed finishing vats, multiple clean-in-place systems and whey pretreatment. Minnesota-based APT designs and manufactures equipment for the dairy and food processing industry.

In this instance, the product Russell supplied to the manufacturer was the first unit that it had made. And the stainless steel chains were portrayed as being the most robust solution for the chemical environment. Inside a year, however, the chains started to sag and could not self-suspend. “I can’t say exactly why the chain failed,’’ Russell said. “Over time, it started to sag and there was no ability in the design to tighten it. We were surprised that in less than a year, the stainless steel chains weren’t working properly.”

Finding a Quick Solution

Russell had been working on a solution about six months before the faulty energy chain failed for the final time. Two months prior, he contacted igus territory sales manager Charles Jaskolka.

“The good news is we were proactive,’’ Russell said. “It wasn’t like the crash happened and we had to engineer the entire solution. We were within inches of the finish line. The only thing I didn’t know was how soon we could get it to the site. I was able to get back to that customer the next morning and tell him what our plan was, and that the new chain would be there the next day and we’d have people on site to install it.”

igus, which runs its North American operations of Providence, R.I., delivered four 13-ft E4.42 energy chains, one for each of the four finishing vats. The system runs the carriage and stirrer back and forth on top of the finishing vat on a 24/7 schedule.

The igus e-chain is used primarily in long-term applications in moist environments. It is ideal for long travel lengths and also works well in free-hanging, side-mounted applications. The chain is used in a variety of applications, including cranes, construction machines, agricultural plants, heavy machinery, steel plants and shipyards. It is designed for quick assembly, and no maintenance or lubrication is needed. The chain can be assembled for travel lengths as far as 656 feet.

“The most important features for us were that the chain fit inside the existing design window and was projected to offer many years of service,’’ Russell said. “Being that this was the first of these machines we had put on the market, it was critical the solution was robust and would not fail again.”

Solution Standing Up to Cleaning Agents

Russell said the chains are in a wash down environment that is cleaned daily with chemicals. The materials in the chain need to stand up to those chemicals for many years of operation. He does not believe, however, that the stainless steel chain failed because of poor chemical resistance.

“We went with the stainless steel chain originally because it had been portrayed as being the most robust solution in that chemical environment,’’ Russell said. “But we had a fair amount of trouble with the chain and the cable that rode inside the chain.”

The e-chains do not come in contact with food but Jaskolka said he did need to make certain the materials could stand up to the chemicals used in the cheese manufacturer’s cleaning solutions.

While the new energy chain solved the problem, Russell’s primary concern was fixing the issue quickly. He waited eight weeks to get the original energy chain. A similar wait time would have been unacceptable. “The other solutions we were looking at were four to six weeks,’’ said Russell. “This was a real burden for the plant. It had to slow production down and they really needed that fourth vat to be operational.”

Retrofitting in any environment can be a difficult task, especially one in which where there is around-the-clock production. Russell and Advanced Process Technologies found a solution with igus energy chains, and the cheese manufacturer got back to business quickly, keeping its products moving and cheese-consuming customers happy.