Engineering a new generation of skinnersCretel’s engineers started from scratch to redesign the company’s automatic skinning machine

Cretel has a background in providing equipment for the fish and meat processing industries – and now this company with its long pedigree has a new home and is re-engineering its product line, starting with its fish processing range.

“The seafood industry is where we feel we are most firmly established,” said Cretel manager Guy Persyn. “So that was the logical place to start, and the fish processing industry is one that demands quality in its processing equipment.”

The first choice candidate for re-engineering is Cretel’s automatic skinning machine, and Guy Persyn said that this has been such a comprehensive process that the result is practically a new machine, rather than a new version of what was there before.

“We also went back to the beginning and started from scratch, as we wanted to avoid the tunnel vision that can be part of improving existing equipment,” he explained.

“We set out to identify weaknesses in the existing machines, and to solve these in the next generation of skinning machines.”

The result is that Cretel’s automatic skinning machine has features that can be seen at a glance, such as the redesigned in-feed and out-feed belts, as well as some that aren’t immediately obvious. These include a metal treatment that ensures exceptional smoothness of the steel casing down to a microscopic level, denying even the smallest bacteria a hiding place.

“The focus is on reliability, quality and robust construction,” Guy Persyn said, commenting that hygiene also tops the priority list. “We see this as a very important consideration for the market. Cleanability is vital and this is where we can also make a difference compared to our competitors.”

The machine’s thickness settings have been re-designed so that it can easily be set for silver, regular or deep skinning, without the need to disassemble the machine to make adjustments, while the infeed and outfeed transport belts, which had previously been at different levels, have been arranged in the new version so that there is no height difference, and no drop from one belt to the next.

“This had been a problem with some species,” said Johan Timmerman, manager of Cretel’s food processing equipment production. “But that  problem has been eliminated now.”

Maintenance has been simplified with the arrangement of critical functions located in a single block that is not an integral part of the machine’s frame, so this can easily be switched.

“Changing knives, or changing the block is quick and easy, there’s no disassembly required,” Guy Persyn said.

“Safety is also an important factor for our customers, and a lot of them opt for the automatic skinning machine for precisely that reason. It doesn’t need anyone to get close to the machine while it’s in operation. You just place the fillets on the belt and they come off at the other end. So automation in itself is a safety feature.”

Cretel’s new generation automated skinning machine has been in use in a test version with a group of customers who put it through its paces under real working conditions, and now it’s ready for release.

The company’s developers haven’t been idle while this machine was going through its test phase, and other skinning machines in the range are also approaching the end of their re-engineering phases, with the range simplified in the process.

“There have up to now been two small tabletop skinning machines, one for fine-skinned fish such as sole and another for coarser skinned fish such as rays. But those two are being replaced with a single machine that can be easily adjusted to do either job. So the range is being simplified, with a more versatile machine capable of doing both jobs. We’re now finalising this machine, and next will be the higher-capacity manual skinning machines.”

“Cretel machines have a reputation for being reliable and robust. There are a lot of machines with customers that have  twenty years of use behind them,” Johan Timmerman said, commenting that when machines have that long a working lifetime, replacements aren’t often required.

“Sometimes we think that they are too reliable. But we aim keep that reputation. When a customer has had a machine that has served well for so many years, when they do need a new one, they have an easy choice ahead of them,” he said, commenting that the fish processing sector is one where producers appreciate quality and are prepared to invest in high-spec equipment that will give them years of use.

Looking ahead with carbon-neutral production

All of the mechatronic activities within ATS, which includes Cretel, have been consolidated into a single site in the harbour area in Ghent as Cretel relocated from its former premises in Eeklo.

Guy Persyn explained that Cretel’s and ATS Group’s ultimate ownership is French energy company EDF – so there is a strong focus on green energy that runs through the group in its entirety.

“The building we are in now, where ATS has its mechatronic division, is a CO2 neutral building. All of the energy we use here is derived from solar and wind sources, plus we have intelligent energy management systems and battery storage to make energy consumption as efficient as possible,” he said.

“This is something about which some of our customers are sensitive, and which is going to become increasingly important. At the moment, it’s a consideration for 5% of our customers, but in a few years 50% of them will see this as a vital factor.”

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