Extreme temperatures, high pressure, and high speed are conditions that occur quite often in the food and beverage industry. And that explains why you see hydraulic and pneumatic systems performing a wide variety of tasks from moving ingredients along for processing to final packaging and even product loading. These systems carry out innumerable tasks in every aspect of the food and beverage supply chain and are able to do so even in extreme conditions.
An Integral Part of the Modern Food and Beverage Industry
Here’s just a sampling of where you can find hydraulics and pneumatics at work in the food and beverage industry:
- Forklifts used to transport raw ingredients and finished products
- Conveyance systems that not only move products but can sort and distribute them to different destinations
- Chopping, cutting, slicing, and dicing systems
- Ingredient dispensers for solids and liquids
- Massive mixers and blenders
- Blow-molding and manipulation of food-grade packaging
- Shaping and forming of food products
- Sealing of bottles and cans
You can find both systems at work in just about any preparation, processing, or packaging plant. They are regularly used to provide torque, force, displacement, and rotation not just to the products themselves but to other components within the system. They often serve as actuators along the production line to aid in any number of tasks, including opening and closing oven doors, aligning packaging with dispensers, redirecting certain types of products along the production line, and assisting with cleaning and sanitation processes.
However, hydraulics and pneumatics are not solely used as actuators. Along with cylinders, there are hydraulic motors that can generate tremendous torque for blenders and mixers as well as air compressors that can generate high-pressure, fast-moving blasts of air for everything from sorting to cutting.
Conveyance of Food and Beverage Products
Pneumatic cylinders are a common component in food and beverage conveyance systems. This is likely due to the fact that they are easy to keep clean and are a compact, reliable way of generating motion, both linear and rotational. In fact, when designed correctly, these systems can achieve 3D motion that can combine both linear and rotational motion with great precision. This supports not just conveyance but accurate positioning of ingredients, products, and packaging. Behind all of these pneumatic cylinders, you will find a complex pneumatic system driven by an air compressor.
Powerful hydraulic motors and linear actuators are also used in conveyance, especially when significant torque or force is required to keep things moving (which is especially true when there is lifting or lowering involved). Both hydraulics and pneumatics figure heavily in the process of conveying food-grade oils and liquids to their right destinations during processing.
Note that both hydraulics and pneumatics are rugged enough to drive processing, assembly, or packaging lines, even in aggressive work environments. Whereas extreme dust and moisture would render electric power difficult to use, it will have minimal effect on a properly designed hydraulic or pneumatic system.
Preparation of Food and Beverages
Compressed air is often used during the food preparation process, including highly repetitive tasks such as sorting, shaping, and even cutting food. Generating this compressed air requires the use of powerful air compressor systems that have to meet extremely high purity and sanitation standards so that the air itself does not pose a risk of contamination. Pneumatic cylinders are also used to separate ingredients, such as separating the liquid whey from milk solids, and, later on in the cheese production process, forming the shape of the cheese. These cylinders are effective tools because they can provide very precise control over the pressures they apply.
Hydraulic systems are crucial to mixing processes that are powered by hydraulic motors that can provide consistent torque. They are also used to add and transfer ingredients into the mix, where the consistency and reliability of hydraulic systems are very important. In addition, hydraulic power works equally well for blending and mixing both liquid and solid products regardless of viscosity. And there are hydraulic motor designs specifically engineered to handle the high startup torque involved with most industrial mixing applications.
Packaging of Products
The use of vacuum pressure to lift, manipulate, and place food products is extremely effective, especially when the food items are delicate or a non-symmetric shape. Pneumatic systems are also used in connection with tasks such as forming, filling, and sealing food packaging. Air compressors are necessary to generate high-pressure blasts that are critical to packaging manufacturing processes such as blow molding or cleaning food packaging prior to packaging. Hydraulics also come into play with packaging, especially as it relates to the packaging of multiple products that may have significant weight when combined. And these heavy products must also be conveyed to the shipping area of the facility, which often entails the use of hydraulic-powered systems including forklifts.
Transportation of Goods
When it comes to transporting loads of food and beverage products, the sheer weight involved demands the power and torque of hydraulics. No one can afford to drop a massive load of eggs or a heavy crate of wine packaged in glass bottles. Whether it is lifting, supporting, or rotating products, hydraulics can handle the job in a reliable, controlled manner. To that end, you see many hydraulic and pneumatic cylinders at work during the transition from storage (temporary or long-term) to transportation and shipping.
Cleaning Machinery and Workspaces
Cleanliness and sanitation are at the foundation of both the food and beverage industries. Failure here can have horrific end results, including fines, illness, loss of consumer confidence, and even bankruptcy. Dependability is key for any equipment involved in the cleaning process, and both hydraulic and pneumatic equipment feature heavily in the cleaning process at many manufacturing, processing, and packaging plants around the world.
Pneumatics vs Hydraulics
At the beginning of this article, there was a reference to high pressures, extreme temperatures, and high speeds — all of which are supported by hydraulics and pneumatics. Hydraulic and pneumatic systems are made to handle high pressures and extreme temperatures encountered during food preparation, processing, and sterilization. Both can achieve extremely high speeds as well. That means that when it comes to food and beverage processing, it is not a matter of pneumatics versus hydraulics, but rather which one is most appropriate for the task at hand. Pneumatic systems are most often implemented where there is a need for fast, precise operations that may demand a more delicate approach (e.g., manipulating eggs, processing bananas, placing baked goods in position for icing), while hydraulics are used when more force and torque is needed (mixing batter, blending thick candy, loading crates of beverages).
Challenges with Using Pneumatics and Hydraulics in the Food and Beverage Industry
There are special challenges related to the use of pneumatics and hydraulics in the food and beverage industry. Earlier we alluded to cleaning: not only do these systems often assist in the cleaning process, but they also have to be cleaned and sterilized themselves. This can be problematic when corrosive cleaners are used, but materials such as stainless steel combined with the careful selection of hose and seal materials make it much easier to keep these systems clean. Stainless steel can handle high-temperature sanitation, high-pressure washing, and even steam cleaning without any major issues, as can certain polymer materials that are commonly used in high-performance seals.
Another challenge involves lubrication and industrial fluids, including hydraulic fluid, gear oil, and compressor oil. In years past it was difficult to find industrial fluids that were compatible with high standards involving in food preparation and processing, but new advancements have made food-grade lubricants and fluids available. While they may not offer the level of performance of other types of fluids, they can be used in situations where traditional lubricants would pose a serious risk of contamination and major fines. In addition, these food-grade lubricants are continually being enhanced to provide even better performance.
Without hydraulic and pneumatic technology, many food and beverage processing plants would quickly come to a standstill. Just the failure of one component can shut down a significant part of a processing plant, which is why maintenance is so very important. Most food and beverage processing facilities cannot afford extensive downtime and M&O costs, whether it is a hydraulic motor used to blend fruits into bottled smoothies or a pneumatic-powered linear actuator that is an integral part of a packaging system for delicate baked goods.
At MAC Hydraulics, we are familiar with the challenges involved with hydraulics and pneumatics for use in the food and beverage industry. Our team of specialists will work with you to develop a customized maintenance plan to fit your facility’s needs. When a failure does occur, we offer on-site repair services supported by our heavily equipped mobile repair service. Our experienced repair team can work with any brand of hydraulic pumps, motors, valves, hoses, and cylinders as well as pneumatic compressors and cylinders. For repairs that cannot be completed on on-site, MAC Hydraulics has a state of the art fabrication facility. Contact us today to find out how we can provide support to your food or beverage processing facility.