Despite the intrinsically anti-bacterial nature of stainless steel, cleaning crews at food-processing companies take their jobs seriously. And that's a good thing for the stainless steel market.
Rick Spiak, vice president of sales and marketing at Wirebelt Co. of America, a Londonderry, N.H.-based company that makes stainless conveyor belts for the food processing industry, said his company's replacement business is slightly larger than its original equipment business thanks to those rough sanitary squads.
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness at a food plant, so the cleanup crews have to be aggressive," he said. "Eventually the equipment would wear out. But it's rare it actually wears out; it's usually torn up."
The same type of belt on the same type of machine at two different plants can last anywhere from two days to six months, depending on this kind of wear, Spiak said. "As a business we want to try to forecast this need, but there's no consistency in demand."
One thing is certain food processing machinery parts makers are seeing an increase in demand. "With the economy in the state it's in right now, people—when they decide to eat out—are not going to midrange (restaurants) like Chili's or TGI Friday's. They run to Burger King and Wendy's because it's cheap," Spiak said.
Although overall food equipment growth generally trends alongside population growth, there are peak times for purchasing, according to Doug Grunder, president of Marion Mixers Inc., Marion, Iowa.
Those peaks depend on when food processing companies have cash, and that time is now, he said. "Last summer, people were looking for places to put their money and they put it into grains futures. Those high prices soon hit grocery stores. But now grain futures have dropped, yet prices at the grocery store haven't dropped," Grunder said. "People who are processing food right now have money in their pocket and they're spending it on capital equipment."
But an executive at Paul Mueller Co., Springfield, Mo., which makes stainless steel processing equipment for the food, farm, beverage and chemical industries, noted that "the economy hasn't done us any favor. It's really impacted us because projects haven't moved forward."
Many of those stalled endeavors had to do with ethanol. "There was a big boom in corn for making fuel, but that's almost died," said Paul Hume, Paul Mueller's director of marketing. "But we just got an inquiry from a dominant cheese company for eight cone-bottom processors for whey protein concentrate. There are some real large projects in stainless that are going on. People have to eat and companies need to grow to expand their markets."
When stainless prices were at a peak 18 months ago, some companies sought less-expensive alternatives. But Grunder said substitute materials didn't catch on. "We looked at alternatives when pricing was really high, but it's a hard thing to get our customers away from the 300 series," he said. "It's what is certified in the industry."
What did become popular during nickel's heyday was stainless Type 2101, an Outokumpu Stainless Inc. product that has 21-percent chrome and 1.5-percent nickel vs. the traditional Type 304, which has 18-percent chrome and 8-percent nickel.
"There are no threats out there to stainless," Hume said. "But 2101 will be more widely used, replacing 304 in applications other than dairy. I think 2101 will become a big player. It's about 15 percent less expensive than stainless 304." MARIA GUZZO