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issue: August 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Plastics Technology
Slicing Up the Competition

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Commercial foodservice equipment maker Berkel Company is slicing away at the competition with the introduction of its new food slicers that are primarily made of plastic.

Berkel Company’s new X13 manual gravity and X13A automatic gravity food slicers have ditched the traditionally used metal parts. Instead, IDI International Composites helped provide custom for a majority of its parts, including the product table, housing and handles for a more durable bulk molding compound (BMC) instead. The slicer also features a 1/2 horsepower motor and 13-inch knife that allows for a slice thickness of up to 1-5/16 inch (34 mm).

In an effort to increase the sanitary operation of its food slicers, Berkel (South Bend, Indiana, U.S.) decided to diverge from the traditionally used metal materials and integrate thermoset composites instead.
Todd Clem, business unit manager, says the decision came after the company conducted research on the cleaning time of its food slicers. The results indicated that it took more than 90 minutes to clean a slicer and that a slicer contained eight to 11 harborage points for bacteria. These points, according to Clem, are created by bolting or welding stainless steel or aluminum together, thus making them virtually impossible to sanitize.
“That drove us to the plastic design, because we could take, for instance, the meat table that has anywhere between seven and 14 parts welded or bolted together, and literally make it a single, one-piece molded unit,” Clem tells APPLIANCE. Additionally, he says the company was able to relocate certain controls more easily with the use of composite materials compared to the use of metal.
The first step in the metal-to-plastic transition was finding a molder that could provide the presses needed to mold the large components. Once found, Berkel focused on finding a company to provide the raw materials for the project. The company says it chose IDI Composites International (Noblesville, Indiana, U.S.) because IDI understood what Berkel wanted to achieve and worked to provide a custom solution that fill the bill—both physically and cosmetically.
Gary Littell, application development engineer for IDI, says thermoset bulk molding compounds (BMCs) were ideal for the project due to the rigidity of the material. “Thermosets have physical attributes that can be obtained at relatively low cost compared to an engineered thermoplastic, and certainly compared to metal,” he says.
The rigidity, Littell says, is achieved because of a molecular difference. Thermosets contain covalent bonds (bonds between carbon and oxygen) and are cross-linked, ultimately making the material strong. This is opposed to thermoplastics, which contain ionic bonds (bonds between negative and positive ions) and are more loosely held together. “Chemistry is very simple, yet very effective,” Littell says.
With a molder and material provider set, Berkel started work on deciding what components would be changed and, more importantly, how. Clem says the company knew it wanted to change the product table on the slicer based on the high amount of harborage points for bacteria. This decision then led to the slicer’s housing due to its large size and different, complex angles, Clem explains. “We didn’t want to go to a straight aluminum casting,” he says. “The plastic was going to be a much more sanitary surface to clean than anything we could have done in metal.”
Part by part, Berkel evaluated whether there was reason to switch to a composite material or not. The company decided to switch the pusher head of the unit into an overmolded handle that features a stainless steel rod underneath. This was done to maintain the weight needed for quality operation, while still increasing the sanitary levels.
Both Berkel and IDI agree that sanitary operation is improved with the use of thermosets on the slicers, but an added benefit was the ability to reduce the number of components used as well. At the end of the project, Berkel reduced the number of components on its X13 manual gravity and X13A automatic gravity food slicers by 40 percent—a natural benefit of using molded parts, as it eliminates the need for post-machining.
Berkel says another added benefit of choosing IDI was their attention to detail, especially aesthetics. “They were able to understand what we were trying to achieve and worked in getting us the materials that had the right look,” Clem says. “A lot of effort went into getting the right color scheme and the right resins to be able to actually mold well in the casting.”
The composite material, in addition to its rigidity and sanitary benefits, also features flame resistance (UL 94 5V-approved) around machined parts and maintains tight tolerances and clearances. According to IDI, BMCs also will not degrade from exposure to sanitizers and cleaners, or acids and proteins from food.
Berkel’s newly designed feed slicers started shipping in March 2006, but that’s not putting a stop to the company’s relationship with IDI. In fact, the two companies are currently working on modifying even more parts of the slicers to a BMC. Plans are already underway to change the ring guard, which goes around the non-slicing portion of the knife and around bottom, back and top of the unit, to an overmolded BMC part instead of aluminum.
As for whether or not the use of thermosets will travel to Berkel’s other products, including its economy and mid-tier slicers, Clem says he can’t confirm anything, but will say it is on the agenda.
Either way, Clem says the relationship IDI has been successful in meeting its goals, but the hard work isn’t over with yet. He says the next challenge is showing its customers the advantages of BMCs that it’s already realized.
“Any time you move the bar as far as we did, you’re going to have your work cut out for you,” Clem tells APPLIANCE. “The job that we have now is to prove that our materials have a long-term durability and resistance than the alternate materials do. That is what we are up against and we are doing well. We’ll just continue cutting away at the competition.”

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Berkel Co.

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