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The Royal Society, an organisation made up of the world’s most distinguished scientists, last year voted refrigeration the ‘most significant invention’ in the history of food and drink, edging out pasteurised milk and the tin can to take the number one spot.

It is difficult to see how a commercial foodservice operation would survive without refrigeration today, although clearly the technology used in current equipment has come a long way since artificial refrigeration was first demonstrated in Glasgow in 1748 and then produced commercially from 1805.

While the core function of refrigeration — to safely preserve and maintain food content — remains the same as it did back then, the leading makers of foodservice refrigeration continue to invest huge sums of money in R&D as the bar is continuously raised.

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The desire to develop refrigeration that is more practical, more powerful and more efficient is likely to hold the same competitive appeal for manufacturers in 10 years as it does now.

Undoubtedly, the push to develop ‘greener’ refrigeration systems that consume less energy has been the main driver for leading suppliers in the last few years. Impending EU legislation has brought some urgency to the debate, but buyers, too, are now actively specifying equipment that isn’t going to send their utility bills soaring.

When it comes to delivering greener refrigeration, manufacturer Williams continues to put the onus on harnessing the right components. It also embraces the ‘Greenlogic initiative’, an AFE Group programme that puts sustainability at the heart of product development and manufacturing.

Sales and marketing director, Malcolm Harling, cites Williams’ self-developed ‘air curtain’ system — which recycles the cold air normally wasted in conventional multideck designs — and Coolsmart controllers as two pieces of cutting-edge refrigeration technology. The latter minimises the cabinet’s energy consumption through processes such as fan and heater pulsing, intelligent defrost, and independent management of evaporator and condenser fans.

“Williams has a continuous programme testing new components and technologies,” explains Harling. “Recent innovations have included low energy fans, bumper bars made from recycled materials and electro-deposition dipped coils, which resist corrosion to maximise service life.”

The green agenda has come to define Gram’s strategy, too, and the market can certainly expect its future product strategy to push the boundaries of energy efficient refrigeration.

Glenn Roberts, the company’s UK MD, says Gram stated its commitment to using HFC-free refrigerants more than 10 years ago, and is constantly developing super-low energy products based on natural refrigerants.

He notes that hydrocarbon refrigerants have numerous benefits over traditional HFCs: “They have a lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) and Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) than HFCs, and are far more efficient conductors of heat, meaning that less pressure is exerted on essential components of the machine such as the compressor, which allows the refrigerator to run more efficiently. Current concerns about the impact of global warming necessitate action from refrigeration companies to develop more sustainable forms of refrigeration.”

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Liebherr converted its entire refrigeration range to hydrocarbon refrigerants two years ago, a move that it says commanded a major R&D commitment, but one that is wholly justifiable.

“Liebherr continually invests in R&D, having extensive test room and engineering facilities,” says national account manager Stephen Ongley. “At the very core of Liebherr’s strategy are the values of ‘quality, design and innovation’. Liebherr operates an ongoing product development plan to ensure R&D resources for both regular updates to existing ranges as well as next-generation product developments.”

One company that can truly claim to have seen the refrigeration landscape evolve over the last century is LEC Commercial. Its 70th anniversary was marked by the roll-out of the Platinum range of equipment, and Diane Ho, product manager of the brand’s parent company GDPA, says the goal is to create refrigeration that meets the changing demands of the industry.

“A recent focus on energy efficiency, space optimisation and meeting strict food safety standards, has been key to ensuring our range remains at the forefront of the operator’s mind. Our Platinum range of catering refrigeration offers not only storage to meet food safety standards, but also a host of additional extras such as alarms and locks for security, castors or rollers for manoeuvrability, and lights and multiple shelf positions for flexibility.”

In the blast chiller space, Precision Refrigeration reckons its recently-launched ‘Eco Chiller’ is one of the most environmentally-friendly in its class, using HFO refrigerant Solstice ze from Honeywell and operating from a standard 13 amp socket. Precision also now offers a self-contained refrigerated drawer, which it insists is both affordable and hugely energy efficient.

MD, Nick Williams, says that with a temperature range of +15°C to -22°C, the unit can be used for every refrigerated storage application possible. “Energy-saving is a key feature,” he says. “Precision’s iCool controller minimises power consumption during quiet periods, while its microprocessor uses the latest generation fuzzy logic to provide totally accurate temperature control. EC fan technology also reduces energy use.”

Delivering true innovation is not possible without significant investment from the manufacturing community. When Foster launched its extensive G2 range last year, it was the culmination of a radical shift in product construction, says the company’s market and development director, Chris Playford.

“The whole development process required an innovative approach, from the investments in our UK manufacturing facility to ensure the product could be built through to our CFD modelling capability, otherwise known as ‘Fluid Food-Fresh Technology’.”

Foster’s EcoPro G2 ranges boasts the sort of features that caterers operating in demanding environments will eventually come to take for granted. This includes thicker and more robust cabinet design, advanced thermal efficiency, ergonomic door and handle design, and a completely re-engineered inner recessed door interface that provides a mechanical barrier to protect the gasket face from the cold air of the interior.

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So what of future innovations? Do experts foresee any developments that will disrupt the status quo?

Ian Wood, managing director of Adande, the pioneer of a refrigerated drawer solution that has won huge acclaim for its temperature stability and performance, suggests several factors will determine what the next generation of refrigeration looks like.

“Low carbon and energy labelling are challenges facing the whole industry,” he says. “So regulation, together with rising utility and ingredient costs, will conspire to drive new operational thinking and new technology. Speed and efficiency will be key going forward.”

Any serious refrigeration manufacturer will already have one eye on Brussels, where EU legislation is poised to bring greater governance to the market over the next five years. “We expect future innovations to be led by the introduction of new EU standards regulating the sale of energy efficient equipment,” admits Williams Refrigeration’s Malcolm Harling. “However, it is early days, as work is currently being done to formulate the legislation, but we foresee this will be a major force in the market in 2015.”

For Ongley at Liebherr, the planned phase-out of some existing refrigerants is another issue that threatens to create a challenge for the market, while from a design point of view recent developments perhaps offer a clue to the direction in which the industry is headed.

LED lighting, for instance, has recently been introduced to Liebherr’s glass door models, delivering greater energy efficiency, less heat output and much longer lifespan than traditional lighting systems. “Individually this might not seem significant but Liebherr makes 30,000 glass door cabinets a year, thus making the total energy saving quite substantial.”

As well as efficiency, manufacturers are also working hard to make sure their refrigeration is as flexible as possible, and this trend is set to shape future growth. You only have to look at the versatility of a product such as Gram’s Gastro 07 counter to see that the needs of foodservice operators are changing.

“With a choice of between two and four refrigerated sections, and the further choice of doors or drawers in each section, operators can tailor the unit to their own specifications depending on their needs,” comments the company’s managing director, Glenn Roberts. “Not only this, but the units come with optional saladette or gantry worktops. The option of drawers and doors allows operators to personalise the unit, but also serves as a convenient way of separating different types of food.”

Foster’s Playford predicts that in terms of innovation, space utilisation will become more important in the coming years as kitchen footprints continue to shrink, while the current emphasis on energy efficiency will prevail.

“We work in an industry that by its very nature has an environmental impact — it takes energy to keep things cold and that energy has a cost to the environment. For Foster, the real innovation comes from thinking long-term about how to improve and have the least environmental impact possible.”

Europe holds sway over refrigeration innovation

A key driver in refrigeration innovation and product development over the next 12 to 24 months will be European legislation — specifically the Ecodesign directive and F Gas Regulations.

The requirements of the Ecodesign directive will mean that manufacturers will have to declare an energy efficiency index for each item of equipment in their range. Equipment that does not meet the minimum energy performance figure set by the EU Commission will be prohibited from sale in the European market.

“Manufacturers will be looking to ensure their products comply with the directive and will be investing in, for example, more effective insulation or more efficient compressors,” says Nick Oryino, chair of CESA, which has been playing a key role in the standards development work going on in Brussels.

Additionally, Oryino says that concerns in the industry over the F Gas Regulations, which cover equipment containing ozone depleting gases, will also impact future product innovation.

“One issue is the impact on blast chillers and freezers,” he remarks. “As things stand, it may be illegal to sell them after January 2017. This is because they require powerful refrigerants — an HFC alternative is not possible due to safety regulations, and currently there is only one alternative refrigerating gas available on the market, and it is produced by only one supplier.”

CESA and its European counterpart EFCEM are campaigning on the issue, and have suggested to the EU that blast chillers and freezers should be excluded from the regulations until a selection of suitable refrigerants are developed. Meanwhile, manufacturers will be working on new blast chill/freeze technologies and will be looking to refrigerant suppliers to develop ODP-zero solutions.

Tags : catering equipmentchillersinnovationManufacturersProductsRefrigeration
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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