The ever-increasing costs of ingredients, along with the rising cost of labor, means portion control is steadily becoming one of the most important factors in controlling overall operating cost, according to suppliers in the industry.

“We’ve seen a growing demand for our equipment that quickly and very accurately portions flowable products,” says Lance Aasness, executive vice president for Bothell, Washington-based Hinds-Bock. “Consumers, on the other hand, want to know that they are purchasing a consistent product each and every time. Whether it be for flavor, label concerns or calorie counting, consumers expect to purchase exactly what they see in the package.”

And it’s not just immediate cost that is driving the increased interest in portion control.

“Food safety, labor issues and rising ingredient costs are issues that directly impact the necessity of portion control equipment,” says Andy Sigrist, senior product manager for Unifiller, headquartered in British Columbia. “Savvy food manufacturers understand that portioning equipment can facilitate greater production yields and help manage costs through accurate portioning that results in less product waste and labor. More recently increases in minimum wages means that manufacturers need to turn to alternative production methods using automation.”

Portioning equipment can also help create a more reliable consistent product, both in taste and look, which can reinforce the brand.

“We’re seeing a greater demand for portioning and decorating equipment all over the world,” Sigrist says. “Whatever the satiation, incorporating a semi-automatic filling machine into production can be an ideal solution.”

Overlooked opportunities

Food production facilities may be missing the chance to increase efficiency and control costs, even in fairly obvious ways.

“Some producers still fill by hand, even at larger plants,” Sigrist says. “While hand filling can be an easy solution, there are many drawbacks to this old-fashioned way.”

For starters, manual depositing can be tiring, time consuming and straining, putting employees at the risk of injury or neglect when the task gets monotonous. It also increases the likelihood of contamination, Sigrist says, which can impact the bottom line in different ways.

“Allergens and cross-contamination are a concern now more than ever before, so machines need to be easy to clean, easy to use and minimize downtime,” he says.

But the top missed opportunity is still simply the chance to reduce material expenses.

“Ingredient cost is the number one reason,” Aasness says. “Incorrect and inaccurate portioning at the end of the year will definitely affect your bottom line.”

Prepared meal capabilities

Depositors get a lot of use for portioning of cake batters and other ingredients for baked goods, but they are also vital in the production of ready-to-eat meals produced offsite and sold in supermarket deli departments.

“The Pro Series depositors are ideal for environments with extreme temperature requirements,” Sigrist says of the Unifiller line. “An upgraded pneumatic control system intended to work in hot and cold environments substantially reduces the wear and tear caused by moisture build-up, caustic cleaning processes and daily use — perfect for cold deli food and ready meal production plants.”

The company says the Pro Series is constructed with he highest food safety standards in mind, including angled surface covers to eliminate pooling, and a stainless steel, tool-free design, which makes maintenance, changeover and disassembly quick and easy. Full wash-down capabilities and a design philosophy that focuses on the fewest parts to maintain and clean allow for quick sanitization and maximum uptime.

“The series’ versatility lends itself to various configurations through the addition of attachments like spreader nozzles, injection needles, cake heads, diving nozzles and more,” Sigrist says. “Different hopper sizes, heated hoppers, hopper stirrers and agitators let producers maintain product integrity. Mounting and travelling bridges are also available for use over form, fill and seal systems.”

Sigrist says Unifiller has several solutions in the market for depositing sauces, mashed potatoes, meat fillings and more into ready meals.

“We’ve also helped set up commissaries for ready-to-eat sandwich production — anything from spraying condiments to depositing fillings into sandwiches,” he says. “And we’ve worked with several institutions — hospitals, prisons and airlines — in assisting in the preparation of ready meals, food and baked goods for their customers.”

Hinds-Bock, meanwhile, offers a solution for grab-and-go morning meals. The company’s Yogurt and Parfait Cup line provides precise portioning for facilities looking to easily produce ready-to-eat yogurt and pudding cups.

“For multi-layered products such as parfait cups with yogurt, fruit filling and dry toppings like a granola-type streusel, portion control is achieved through dedicated depositing and filling,” Aasness says.

Each station on the production line has a dedicated portion control filler that deposits exact amounts of each specific product as the container moves its way down the conveyor,” Aasness says.

“Further to this, optimal production and portion control can be realized bad adding product transfer pumps so that each hopper maintains its own optimum level of product,” he says.

Challenging products

Not all ingredients lend themselves to easy portioning. Among those are mini products, which require even higher accuracy.

“Mini products are even more challenging for portion control, but can still be done quite easily with single piston, multi-piston and servo-controlled fillers and depositors,” Aasness says. “The Hinds-Bock 12P-06 for example can deposit up to 1,000 portions per minute and is perfect for reducing costs with accurate filling and portioning of mini products while achieving yields typically associated with producing standard size products.”

Chunkier particulates can also provide challenges, but the right portioning equipment can take care of them as well.

Unifiller’s MultiStation line features multi-piston, servo-controlled depositing and nozzles that are volumetrically controlled for consistent and accurate portions, according to Sigrist. This eliminates uneven deposits, especially if the product is inconsistent by nature.

“It’s able to portion chunky products and particulates without causing damage to the product,” he says. “The six-port model can portion up to 720 deposits a minute depending on the product.”