Sugar coating it

When one of Weetabix's private label customers wanted the company to produce sugarcoated flakes, Weetabix decided it was time to enter the world of automation. A multinational company headquartered in the UK, Weetabix manufactures its own brands of cereal (Weetabix and Alpen) and processes recipes for nearly 100 brands of cereals for the Canadian, American and British markets. Specifically, the company wanted to automate its material handling processes at its Cobourg, Ontario plant. The existing method was a laborious process-workers lifted extremely heavy sacks filled with granulated sugar and poured them into a blender.

A manufacturer of ready-to-eat cereals, Weetabix Canada uses a PIAB vacuum conveying system to transport sugar for one of its private-label products. Source: PIAB.

"With the existing method, our employees had to manually lift and carry the bags," says Al Cane, Weetabix's engineering project coordinator. "This was a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that created a situation where workers could hurt their backs lugging around these heavy loads." To help find a suitable answer, Cane partnered with Ron Hull, an executive at Weetabix's automation distributor, who suggested PIAB vacuum products.

Cereal coating can be a difficult process, often requiring several stages. At the Weetabix plant, granulated sugar is delivered in large super sacks. They are placed on forklifts where a hoist hangs the sacks over the feed station and the sugar is dumped from an opening in the bottom of the sacks. At the bottom of the feed station is a feed adapter that connects to the vacuum conveyor where vacuum is generated by a compressed air-driven PIAB vacuum pump.

Vacuum draws the sugar through a vacuum line about 30 feet into a vacuum receiver. From the receiver, the sugar is discharged into a blender filled with hot water. The sugar mixes with the hot water and the mixture moves to the next stage of processing.

To prevent the steam from coming up the blender and causing the sugar to crystallize and stick to the bottom of the valve, PIAB also developed a customized transition piece to fit between the vacuum receiver and blender. The transition piece allows the dry sugar to flow freely from the conveyor, and keeps the steam from entering and causing the sugar to coat and stick to the dump valve.

The automated conveying system eliminates unnecessary bending, lifting and other movements that could be detrimental to employees. "We were able to reassign one of our full-time workers to a more productive task, realizing a cost savings of eight hours a day," says Cane. The Weetabix plant also uses a preventive maintenance check every three months to head off any possible problems. "The conveyors are very dependable, well-designed and extremely clean. Our inspectors like the fact that the system eliminates almost all risk of contamination," says Cane.

For more information:
Mike Tuohey, PIAB; 800-321-7422;

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