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Conveyor Technology Increases Food Safety

Headshot of Scott NoklebyResearch conducted by faculty and students at UOIT have helped a small Northumberland County company weather the ups and downs of its main industry.

UniTrak, founded in the town of Port Hope, Ontario, in 1969, is a company that manufactures and supplies bulk material handling equipment to companies in the food and chemical industries. UniTrak's main technology is a bucket elevator system called TipTrak. There are several models of the TipTrak system with about 16 configurations.

While UniTrak has enjoyed some commercial success with its technology, the company needed to develop a pivoting bucket elevator to meet customer demand and improve their marketability. UniTrak wanted to have access to niche markets in the food industry that have high preparation standards and production regulations, such as the dairy and meat industries.

To increase marketability, UniTrak also wanted this design to provide several discharge points so the products could be conveyed and packaged more efficiently; their existing technology just has one.

After doing preliminary market research, UniTrak decided it would need to develop a pivoting bucket design system. But the company couldn't do it alone.

"We lacked the in-house engineering expertise and the time to create the design," said Doug Snoddon, vice-president, Operations.

UniTrak teamed up with Dr. Scott Nokleby, an associate professor in UOIT's Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. Dr. Nokleby's background in design and robotics was suited to this geometry-heavy project.

The team applied for a grant from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) through the Applied Research and Commercialization Initiative. FedDev Ontario provides funding to faculties at universities so they can collaborate with industry partners to not only strengthen the educational experience for students, but also to assist small businesses with challenges such as lack of time, money or expertise.  

Once approved by FedDev Ontario, Dr. Nokleby and his team at UOIT set out to research the market and design the bucket component of the new pivoting conveying technology. 

Michael Frejek, who had just completed his Master in Applied Science and Mechanical Engineering degree at UOIT, was selected to work on the project under Dr. Nokleby's supervision.

The main goal of the project was to design a bucket that could be as large as possible while still being stable and able to meet industry cleanliness standards.

"There were many considerations. Anytime you have moving parts it's hard to keep things clean and you want to minimize where any product can collect. The buckets must remain stable at all times whether turning or discharging," Dr. Nokleby explained.

Such considerations challenged Frejek to apply what he had learned in school in a real-world situation. During a 12 month placement, he designed the bucket, wheels and pulleys for the new system based on the existing chain UniTrak was already using in its TipTrak system.  

Both Dr. Nokleby and Snoddon agreed the prototype Frejek created gives UniTrak entry into a niche market because it can be easily cleaned. This is an increasing concern due to higher standards in food safety guidelines.

While the project wasn't seen through to completion due to time and grant money restraints, Snoddon says the insight UniTrak gained was invaluable.

"We had tried to start this project on our own three years ago, but we faced too many challenges. This gives us a workable design we can utilize when we prepare for commercialization in 2013,"  he said.

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