Potential efficiency gains when designing food mixing systems

Manufacturing companies are often under ever-increasing pressure to maximize efficiency wherever possible. If their processes include powder mixing, then this process step can provide lots of often unexplored potential for efficiency gains. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, especially in an industry as diverse as food & feed manufacturing. That’s why Jarno Siebelink from Hosokawa Micron B.V. recommends taking a system-based approach to the powder mixing process as a whole, rather than just focusing on the mixing unit itself. “Thinking about this at the design stage helps the customer to choose the most efficient solution for their needs, which can give them the all-important competitive edge and support their long-term business continuity,” he says.

When it comes to powder mixing processes, all manufacturers ultimately have the same aim: to reliably and reproducibly achieve a homogeneous mixture as efficiently as possible. However, the most efficient way to do that varies depending on the company’s specific situation in terms of a wide range of internal and external factors, such as their sector, home country, sales markets, organizational structure and corporate objectives. “Traditionally, the focus within companies producing bulk powders, such as animal feed or bakery ingredients, is on improving efficiency in terms of shortening production times and reducing downtime. But there are many other ways for manufacturers of other products to make efficiency gains if they think about the bigger picture,” says Jarno Siebelink, Senior Application Engineer in the Food/Feed department of Hosokawa Micron in Doetinchem, the Netherlands.

Efficiency is more than just time and money

He illustrates this with anexample of a meat processing company in Eastern Europe: “This customer used to buy in ready-mixed spice blends to use as ingredients in their products such as sausages and burgers. However, they wanted to have more control over this so they decided to source the raw materials and prepare the spice mixes themselves. We designed and supplied a dedicated customized mixing system with powder handling before and after mixing, which has now been installed in their own factory. This has improved their efficiency in several ways, not only in terms of time savings but also by giving them the flexibility to switch to other products in line with market needs, as well as supporting inventory management, quality control, delivery reliability and sustainability.”

This requires a new way of thinking about the powder mixing process at the system design stage – as part of the whole production line and in the context of the company goals and sustainability targets, rather than just focusing on the mixing unit itself. “However, one of the key issues nowadays is the fact that customers have fewer project resources, plus their Research & Development department is usually only indirectly involved in system development for new projects,” continues Siebelink. “That’s why, at Hosokawa Micron, we have a dedicated engineering department that works closely with our customers to integrate our mixers as part of the system as a whole, from start to finish.”

Solids mixing system

All the necessary expertise under one roof

“Thanks to having all the necessary knowledge and expertise under one roof, we can give our customers more peace of mind and also shorten their time to market. Moreover, we have full control over everything we design and produce, so quality is guaranteed,” adds Siebelink. “We can still work with third-party suppliers for ancillary equipment such as sieves, metal detection and weighing units, if that is what a specific customer wants. But since our acquisition of Hosokawa Solids Solutions in 2020, we are now in an even stronger position to supply solutions for the powder handling steps – such as silos, big-bag handling and pneumatic transport systems – from within our own group.” Siebelink has noticed a significant increase in demand for this approach in recent years, both among existing customers and from new ones. “As a result, we have evolved from a supplier of single mixing units into a one-stop shop for turnkey solutions such as complete powder mixing systems,” he states.

Hosokawa Micron provides step-by-step support, from the initial concept right through to on-site installation, according to Siebelink. “We involve our engineers in this process right from the beginning, starting with a meeting with the customer to understand their wants and needs. If necessary, we can first conduct all kinds of tests in conjunction with the customer at our test centre in Doetinchem. Then we issue a proposal to the customer.” Besides providing insights into what kind of hardware, volumes, temperatures and other process-related parameters the customer’s project requires to achieve the desired homogeneity of the end product, this also enables the engineers to think about optimizing the total cost of ownership. “For example, how could we improve the internal transport, or minimize the amount of manual intervention in the system as a whole?” explains Siebelink. “These and other considerations can all help to save time and money by reducing labour, waste, energy, downtime and so on.”

Openness and transparency

He adds that the collaboration with customers is characterized by openness and transparency: “While we always present all the possible options to our customers, we don’t tell them what they should do. Instead, we act as a sparring partner to help them evaluate what is necessary and beneficial in their case, and to suggest efficiency gains that they might not have considered. True efficiency lies in simplicity, so we see it as our task to eliminate unnecessary complexity in line with the customer’s specific needs. Take automation: an investment in an automated system with advanced controls will often deliver a rapid payback in Europe. However, in parts of the world where cheap labour is readily available, these aspects are lower down on the priority list,” he says.

Vitomix ribbon screw mixer

Meeting sustainability demands

Besides lower operating costs, the topic of sustainability runs as another common thread through all of Hosokawa’s projects, he explains: “Generally speaking, our customers in the food & feed industry are becoming more focused on sustainability because their own customers – whether businesses or consumers – are increasingly demanding it. Moreover, many countries have government incentives and/or legislation. There are many ways we can help our customers to achieve their CSR targets by improving the sustainability of their powder mixing system. For example, a smarter approach to system design can make the whole process less resource-intensive in order to save on water and energy consumption.”

In this context, cleaning is an important consideration in powder mixing systems, in particular in the food & feed sector and pharma industry, emphasizes Siebelink. “Our customers often have to comply with very strict hygiene and safety standards. If desired, we can help them to think about their recipes and plan their production schedules to minimize the need for extra cleaning in between batches – which is good for the environmental footprint and also has the added benefit of reducing downtime and therefore increasing efficiency.”

Still on the topic of sustainability, technological advancements mean that many maintenance services and software updates can be performed remotely nowadays, which has greatly reduced the amount of international travel for the company’s engineers. In international projects, Hosokawa Micron also considers the cost and sustainability perspectives of sourcing the system elements, as Siebelink illustrates with another recent example: “As part of a government project in Ghana to provide schoolchildren with a free glass of hot chocolate every day, we developed and supplied a complete powder mixing system. It comprised a Vitomix, three hoppers for the sugar, cocoa and milk powder, screw conveyors and dosing equipment. Thanks to today's technology, we can help this customer remotely with, for example, training and maintenance, but also via remote access to their server to resolve malfunctions and perform software updates. Activities for which we used to have to physically visit the customer can now be done from a Hosokawa location.”

All-important competitive edge

“There's no one-size-fits-all solution for all our customers, but our Engineering & Process team is happy to help them take a system-based approach to the powder mixing process at the design stage, rather than just focusing on the mixer itself. That way, it’s almost always possible to make some efficiency gains – which can give our customers the all-important competitive edge and support their long-term business continuity,” he concludes.