Managing Expectations

For 25 years, La Chiquita Tortilla Manufacturers has produced gourmet tortillas for restaurants and distributors while establishing high expectations among its customers for its all-natural corn and flour tortillas.
However, unexpected downtime due to belt problems was a constant frustration for managers at the Atlanta-based tortilla producer. Specifically, breakdowns on its multi-tier cooling conveyors caused about 13 hours of downtime in one year alone. Moreover, at least twice a month, the plant’s metal detectors were finding broken-off pieces of wire belting, which could have ended up in tortilla packages had it not been for preventive measures in place.  
“Wire belts typically start breaking down as quickly as three or four months into production,” explains Jorge Solis, plant manager for La Chiquita.
Despite routine maintenance practices, La Chiquita had to replace one of its entire belts every six months. To do this, the plant had to keep at least 100 ft. of wire belt stocked at all times, making it difficult for the company to justify the cost of keeping the conveyor operating.
Looking for alternatives, La Chiquita turned to Harahan, La.-based Intralox L.L.C., which pioneered modular plastic belting components that could be installed on existing conveyors. Its Series 1500 Flush Grid is designed with a 48% open area to facilitate airflow and promote cooling. It’s also estimated to last at least six times longer than a standard wire belt, according to Intralox engineers.
La Chiquata’s management notes that the new Intralox belt operates the same belt speeds and cooling times as the previous one, allowing the line to operate as it did in the past, except without the downtime. Additionally, heat-resistant nylon material that’s approved by the Food & Drug Administration eliminated metal contamination concerns.
Unlike conventional wire belts, Intralox Series 1500 belt does not require ongoing tensioning to combat thermal expansion. Its durability has dramatically reduced the downtime as well as the time that La Chiquita maintenance engineers need to spend checking coolers for problems that could cause a breakdown or injury.
“Since Intralox’s belt was installed, we haven’t had to do any major work — not even change the bearings,” Solis explains.
La Chiquita is currently moving forward with plans to retrofit all six of its cooling conveyors. Each unit used to close down for four hours every Sunday for maintenance, but now La Chiquita can produce at the level it has naturally come to expect.