Optical sorter handles berries with care
A family-owned business with over 40 years’ experience, UK soft fruit grower S&A Produce grows, packs, imports and exports quality soft fruit and asparagus, supplying retail customers across the UK and mainland Europe.
In the last five years, blueberries have grown phenomenally in popularity and now account for 30% of the company’s business. To meet this demand, S&A sources the product from all areas of the world, according to the seasons, in order to ensure year-round supply to its customers.
Initially the blueberries were imported pre-packed and then quality inspected and labelled before being distributed. However, this was a slow process, and with demand increasing, S&A sought a solution that would enable it to import the blueberries in bulk and handle the packing itself. Making this change means each container from abroad now contains around 20 tonnes of blueberries as opposed to just three tonnes pre-packed.
“Product quality is vital in the competitive soft fruits market so to have a machine whose sole focus is on quality was hugely important to us when we took on the packing operation for the blueberries,” explained Jan-Willem Naerebout, S&A’s group operations director.
The company selected the TOMRA Primus-D optical belt sorter to conduct quality monitoring prior to packaging. The sorter uses colour cameras to spot discoloured product and advanced laser technology to detect soft berries.
At S&A’s packing operation in Marden, near Hereford, the blueberries are packed and sealed into trays. Prior to this, berries are passed under the cameras and lasers on an O-ring belt and those that are rejected are air blasted onto a cross conveyor above the line. This system ensures gentle handling of the product throughout the operation so that the packed berries maintain their firmness. The Primus-D can handle up to 3.6 tonnes of blueberries per hour, enabling it to feed two tray sealing lines.
“We carefully assessed the different technologies available and what particularly attracted us to the TOMRA solution was that, unlike other systems which used the bounce of the berries to detect which were soft, the TOMRA laser technique means there is no need to touch the product and this further ensures its quality when it reaches the pack. To us, this is a ‘best in class’ solution,” said Jan-Willem.
While S&A initially projected a payback on investment on the new line of three years, the company said that larger throughput volumes mean this is now likely to be under two years. Just as important, said Jan-Willem, is the added value that the line enables it to offer its customers. “We are now far more flexible and can be more responsive to customer requests; for example, additional volume or changes to pack sizes,” he explains. “Clearly being able to maintain quality is critical to this and is where the TOMRA Primus-D provides peace of mind.”
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