Luuc van Lankveld, Product Expert of food processing technology supplier GEA, discusses the cost and quality benefits of using a fully automated line for chicken nugget production.
The processed food industry is expected to experience significant growth in the next few years, as consumer behavior changes dramatically, according to a report by Future Market Insights. During this time, convenience foods like chicken nuggets will remain extremely popular among time-pressed consumers.
Meeting demand for one of the world’s most popular fast food items requires a lot of nuggets, which means that the challenge is on for food processors to complete the entire process of receiving ingredients and grinding, mixing, forming, coating, cooking, frying and freezing them rapidly and to a high standard. Only those that achieve this will win and retain the best supply contracts.
However, with leading fast food chains stipulating increasingly stringent product specifications, manufacturers need to ensure that the equipment they use is capable of producing the right mixture of ingredients and coating for every nugget. The nuggets must also be cooked to perfection, reaching the correct core temperature while still allowing for overall production time to be kept to a minimum.
The process is even more exacting for tempura-coated nuggets, given the delicate nature of the batter they use, as well as their tendency to stick together while cooking. Getting the tempura consistency just right is a fine art if the right texture is to be achieved.
Completely automated production line
Using a fully automated production line helps to reduce downtime, allowing for the efficient use of resources, energy and labor, as well as reducing the potential for human error hampering any aspect of the production process. Furthermore, in order to balance all of the technical benefits with efficiency, it is important to ensure that wastage and running costs are kept to a minimum.
However, using the latest technology can also create its own issues. For example, if items of equipment in the line do not integrate well, or if staff do not receive sufficient training in maintenance and support.
Addressing these factors and the need for precise, high-quality production with rapid turnaround, GEA Food Solutions has created a completely automated production line that takes nuggets through the production process in six minutes before they are frozen and packed.
The installation of a fully automated GEA chicken nugget line at the Danpo food processing plant in Denmark has helped reduce production costs significantly. The plant can now run 60-hour production shifts with only a quick forming drum replacement and some light rinsing of the conveyors approximately every 10 hours.
Of particular significance to the efficiency of the process is the rotary forming drum, which uses a unique step-fill system that fills each cavity consistently to ensure excellent shape retention without peaks on the filling or wastage from smearing.
Capable of much faster speeds than a traditional plate former, the nuggets are then knocked out using air pressure, which is only applied to the relevant cavities rather than the entire drum, significantly reducing energy costs.
The nuggets are subsequently pre-dusted and cooked to a core temperature of 73 degrees in a three-phase spiral oven, where steam and heat are added. Latent heat from the steam is effective in transferring energy into the nugget and due to the higher humidity, less moisture is lost, therefore producing higher yields. The nuggets are then breaded or battered as required before being flash fried and frozen.
The entire line is fully automated with one piece of equipment reading the recipe requirements and then sending parameters to the individual machines, which then communicate with each other, making for a completely seamless process. This keeps operator supervision to a minimum, an important factor in reducing labor costs. It also means that human error is minimal, and nugget quality is improved since the components are supplied at a constant temperature, mixture and consistency.
A fully automated production line such as the one installed at Danpo shows that automation is about more than just the robotization of single machines. When used in conjunction from a single supplier, the integration and interaction of a set of data-connected machines in a production line enables higher production speeds, reduced downtime, lower labor costs and a high level of accuracy, resulting in consistently superior, quality end products.