A Case to Drive Anybody Nuts: Nilfisk CFM 3707/10

Read this case study on Food Engineering’s website, here.

Product losses during production are a fact of life in the food industry, but they can still drive you nuts – particularly if your product is nuts. Paramount Farms, the largest grower-supplier of pistachios and almonds in the world, solved its vexing processing losses with some unusually creative thinking that some people would have thought was … well, you know …

For more than 30 years, Paramount has been growing premium pistachios and almonds in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley. Today the company cultivates the largest pistachio orchards in the Western hemisphere and sells its harvest for private label to Sunkist, Costco, Wal-Mart and other retailing giants. Paramount achieved its market-leading position by embracing technologies that improved yields, sped harvests, and streamlined processing. The one area overlooked was transfer loss, a somewhat small step between harvest storage and processing, but one that was costing the company significantly. Beyond lost inventory, the problem ate up man-hours and increased workers’ injury risks.

Nut production is a competitive industry, often made tougher by slim margins created by vagaries in weather, global supply, and transportation costs. The global tree-nut market (which excludes peanuts) is worth well more than US$4 billion. There are 875 nut growers in the United States and almonds and pistachios are the two largest U.S. tree nut crops, respectively. America is the world’s second largest pistachio-producing country (well behind global leader Iran), harvesting some 347 million pounds in 2004.

California produces 98 percent of the U.S. pistachio crop on a combined 100,000 orchard acres. Paramount owns more than 70 percent of that land, cultivating five million trees that produce more than 39 billion nuts annually.

When the harvest comes in, Paramount deposits the pistachios in its 1.5-million-pound storage silos to await processing in the company’s facility located just across the street from the storage area. The nuts move from the silos to processing on an underground conveyor system. It’s here, between its state-of-art harvesting and industry-leading processing, that Paramount Farms was losing product, time, and money.

A Tough Nut to Crack

Inventory was continually lost as the nuts moved from silo to conveyor to initial collection in the plant, falling from the conveyor belts to the tunnel floors. The problem, and its antiquated solution, frustrated Paramount’s production manager Nick Sharma.

“We were losing about 4,000 pounds of product at a cost of approximately $4 per pound. Recovering the nuts manually, as we had been doing for 16 years, reduced some of that loss, but our savings were being offset by labor costs.”

A team of two or three men would enter the tunnel, manually gathering the fallen pistachios into five-gallon buckets. The heavy buckets would be carried back down the tunnel to the access hatch where they were hoisted out, using rope tied to the handle, by a worker waiting outside. The worker then dumped the bucket into a tote and sent the bucket back down. The whole process averaged four to five hours – up to 15 man-hours – to complete. And because there was no dedicated crew for the chore, workers needed to be pulled off of other tasks.

“We’d often have to stop the crew in middle of a job and put them on this one if rain was forecast. The tunnel floor gets damp; if the stray nuts get wet they’re lost for good,” said Sharma.

Further, the very nature of the labor – stooped over or on hands and knees – lifting heavy, awkward buckets, increased the chances for personal injury.

Sharma considered the task’s challenges and realized that vacuum collection could be the answer. But an ordinary vacuum wouldn’t do the job. A Shop Vac-style machine could damage the delicate pistachio shells, making them worthless. It could not provide a simple method for recovering the collected nuts, nor would it meet sanitation standards. Sharma decided to call Nilfisk-Advance America to see if the specialty vacuum producer had a solution.

To Sharma’s surprise, Nilfisk’s West Coast sales rep Rob Millard had prior experience developing a solution for another nut producer. After inspecting the site and talking through Sharma’s specifications, Millard proposed a custom solution using Nilfisk-Advance America’s CFM 3707/10 vacuum system.

The unit employs three-phase power to drive its 8700-watt motor to create 187 cfm of waterlift. Its direct-drive power system doesn’t rely on belts or couplings, so it is virtually maintenance free. The unit would be equipped with Nilfisk’s CFM 600 food-grade hose. Made from steel-reinforced polyurethane, the hose measures three inches in diameter and is anti-static and abrasion resistant. The 40-foot hose is further equipped with a food-grade nozzle cone attachment.

To meet Paramount’s specific need to recover the nuts undamaged, Nilfisk manufactured a custom hopper and frame in stainless steel. The frame raises the collection hopper nearly six feet off the ground so totes fit under the manually operated chute on its conical base. The hose array allows unwanted debris to bypass the nut hopper and go straight into the vacuum’s regular collection bin. Paramount even sent a 20-pount box of pistachios to Nilfisk’s design team so they could test the vacuum system on real nuts, checking for shell damage or other problems.

After delivery to Paramount, the team realized that the unit could also be used to clean out residual nuts left in the silos after the transfer, further streamlining the transfer process and minimizing loss. Cleaning silos had also been done manually, with brooms and buckets. To reach all of Paramount’s 150 silos, the entire vacuum and hopper system was mounted on a flatbed trailer pulled by an ATV or pick-up truck. An adaptor allows the team to plug into single-phase power if needed, depending on where the unit is on the company grounds.

Shelling Out Much Less

Sharma is quite pleased with the results. “The unit is recovering about 2,500 pounds per hour, which is about 180 percent of the projected volume. And at that rate we’re not seeing any significant product loss from breakage.”

The task that had consumed 12 to 15 man-hours is now completed in three man-hours or less. The time saved cleaning the silos is a bonus for Sharma.

“We’re happy about our productivity gains, of course. It frees our people up to focus on other jobs. But reducing the risk of injuries may be even more important, not only on a human level, but on a long-term cost level as well.”

That kind of thinking is anything but nuts.

For more information, visit www.foodprocessingvacuum.com.