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A: Robert Meirick, Material Transfer & Storage, says:

If your company currently struggles to unload solidified materials from bulk bags, adding a bulk bag conditioner to your facility could increase productivity, improve employee morale, improve plant safety, and reduce operating costs. 

Discharging agglomerated or compacted materials in bulk bags is a growing problem as more materials are imported in bulk bags to reduce costs. Many materials in bulk bags can agglomerate, cake, harden, or solidify due to heat, humidity, transport, or storage, making material discharge difficult or impossible without the right equipment. Conditioning and emptying bulk bags of agglomerated material can be extremely dangerous if the proper equipment isn’t used. Using forklifts, bats, or other implements to condition bulk bags can result in bag breakage, plant structural damage, forklift damage, or injury to plant personnel. Selecting a bulk bag conditioning system for your application requirements can be easy if the correct approach is used.

The most critical items to consider when selecting a bulk bag conditioning system are the supplier, design (safety, dependability, flexibility, and serviceability), quality, value, and performance. A reliable material handling equipment manufacturer will provide a broad knowledge base and ask the right questions to help determine your company’s application requirements.

First, evaluate the supplier’s capability and reputation by asking the following:

  • How long has the supplier been building bulk bag conditioning systems?
  • Are bulk bag conditioners one of the supplier’s core products?
  • Are you being offered a pre-engineered standard unit that you hope will work for you, or are you investing in a custom-designed piece of material handling equipment from a company with a proven track record?
  • What’s the supplier’s responsiveness, service level, and after-sales support capability?
  • What’s the supplier’s design experience, fabrication expertise, and component selection, assembly, and finishing process?

Contact the supplier, discuss your application requirements, and ask about any experience conditioning your materials. Look for a supplier that offers a fully equipped test lab to ensure that your materials will be tested, and successful results are achieved prior to equipment investment. The supplier should be able to provide a full test report, photos, and videos of the testing for your review. 

Next, evaluate the bulk bag conditioning system’s design. You’re looking for a design that’s robust, safe, dependable, and able to effectively condition the range of bulk bag sizes and materials that your application demands.

One key element is the conditioning system’s structural design. To ensure durability, operator safety, and a good return on your investment, look for a conditioner unit that features finite element structural analysis. The structural elements of a bulk bag conditioning system include the following: conditioner frame, bag conditioning arms or platens (a vertically orientated plate, commonly constructed from sheet metal or plate steel), the pallet lift system, and the pallet turntable. All structural elements must be designed to support loads applied during the conditioning cycle.

Safe conditioning of bulk bags starts with a strong foundation. The conditioner framework must be robustly constructed for safety and extended equipment life. Frames constructed from heavy wall structural tubing with continuous welds are preferred.

One of the most crucial aspects of conditioning bulk bags is the conditioning frames or platens that contact your bulk bag. When evaluating conditioning systems, there are two basic designs: units with pivoting conditioning arms and opposing sheet metal platen units. Pivoting conditioning arm units with V-shaped breaker profiles require less floor space, offer significantly higher force output, and greatly reduce maintenance requirements. Although opposing compression plate designs are typically less expensive to purchase, they’re prone to platen guide rod binding and compression platen deflection issues. The guide rods are attached to the platens on one end and pass-through bushings on the other end. Most opposing compression plate conditioning units have three or four guide rods on each conditioning platen. The guide rods attempt to stabilize the platens as they extend into the bulk bag, but are unable to resist the loading they encounter, so they deflect. The guide rod and bushing systems are also difficult to align and maintain. The guide rods and bushing systems can bind due to misalignment or material buildup.

Having the ability to condition all sides of your bulk bag at multiple heights is a desirable feature in most conditioning applications. Some units offer a hydraulic lift platform with a 48-inch travel range and a powerful hydraulic slewing ring turntable drive. Other designs include short travel scissor lift tables or movable conditioning platen assemblies. Make sure that the height adjustment and turntable mechanisms are robust, reliable, easy to service, and have enough adjustment to accommodate both your current and future needs.

An important feature that you must carefully consider when researching bulk bag conditioning systems is the hydraulic system’s quality. The hydraulic system should use quality components from a trusted supplier and dual submerged gear pumps for smooth, quiet operation. Flow dividers used on some units cost less but generate more heat and noise. 

When speed and consistent results are crucial to your operation, PLC-based controls become a necessity. When choosing an equipment supplier, a critical item to consider is the company’s automation capabilities. Automation packages should include a large, color, touch screen operator interface. This will allow easy access to bulk bag and material conditioning parameters, full recipe management functions, system status, and manual mode controls. Be sure to ask suppliers what their automation package includes and how all the conditioning variables are adjusted.

Maintaining a safe work environment in your manufacturing plant is vital for your employees’ well-being and continued productivity. Accidents can be costly with a loss of trained workers, reduced production, and increased insurance premiums. Avoiding shortcuts in equipment safety is important. A conditioning system with guarding on all sides of the unit is imperative. Look for a unit with guard panels on three sides of the unit and a load-side light curtain.

Material Transfer & Storage, Alegan, MI, designs and manufactures material handling equipment and systems.