Food sorting machines with the ability to think like humans could solve the greatest challenges facing the industry today, says TOMRA Sorting Food.
Food security and reducing waste are both high on the international agenda with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimating that by 2050, feeding a global population of nine billion will require a 70 per cent increase in food production. In addition, a report by the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers suggested that as much as half of all the food produced in the world – equivalent to two billion tonnes – ends up as waste each year.
Pieter Willems, technical director at TOMRA Sorting Food, Dublin, says that consumer tolerance towards natural variations in fresh and processed foods should be fed back into the manufacturing process to make it more efficient, optimise scarce resources and cut waste.
Pieter explains: “A great deal of research is being carried out with consumers to discover what they perceive as good or poor quality product and exactly how much lower quality produce is judged to be acceptable. Consumers do have a tolerance to this with processed fresh produce but it is about getting the balance right and then mapping this information back into the capabilities of sorting machines.
“Machines manufacturing French fries can struggle to deliver a consistent product because of the natural variation that potatoes have in size and shape. A machine will always try to make the same product regardless of the shape and size of the potato that went into the processing line. This uniform approach to food processing can create a great deal of unnecessary waste as you then have fries which are too short or too thin. However, if a machine is capable of identifying and then separating potatoes which are most suitable for French fries from those which are more suited to potato wedges or crisps, for instance, you have a much more efficient production line and a happier, more satisfied consumer enjoying the final product.”
He adds: “It is about capturing the essence of this consumer thinking and putting that intelligence into a machine. The ultimate goal for food sorting and processing is for a machine to view food in the same way that consumers do; the ability to control a natural variable and apply a degree of intelligence to the process would be hugely powerful tools to the food industry in general. By removing this ‘good/bad, yes/no’ element to food processing, the amount of food which could be saved and processed rather than being filtered out as waste would be phenomenal. We are talking millions and millions of tonnes of product being saved, optimum use of food and maximum yield from farm to fork.”
TOMRA Sorting Food is the leading provider of food sorting machines and processing technology for the fresh and processed food industries. The company’s focus on research and development has enabled it to develop a range of innovative sorting machines which are able to detect and remove the smallest of defects and foreign material from production lines. Its range of sensor-based solutions transforms how the world optimises its precious resources allowing for sustainable growth and maximum profit while reducing environmental impact.
Lorraine Dundon, vice president and head of group brand at TOMRA Sorting Solutions, says: “This approach to how we obtain, use and re-use resources is at the heart of our business and has been for 40 years. Leading the ‘resource revolution’ is what we have built our business proposition on but our revolution is evolving all the time to ensure we are meeting the needs of our customers and consumers.
“Demand for high quality food has increased significantly over the past 30 to 40 years not only as a result of a growing global population but also because of middle class growth as people lead better lives and new economies emerge. The drivers of our business have changed and so have we. For many years, our focus was about designing machines capable of eliminating foreign material and poor quality produce from production lines. In the beginning that was a challenge but technology has come on so far. Now 99 per cent of foreign material and bad product is removed and this is a given across the industry.”
TOMRA sorting machines use a variety of sensors which go far beyond the common use of colour cameras. Near Infra-Red (NIR) spectroscopy enables an analysis of the molecular structure of a product whilst x-rays, fluorescent lighting and lasers measure the elemental composition of objects. The internal composition and surface structure of objects can also be analysed to determine good or bad produce.
Lorraine adds: “The resource revolution is about delivering sustainable productivity, yield and cost benefits to our customers that other sorting machine manufacturers cannot. Our solutions mean our customers never have to choose between increasing their financial results and reducing their environmental impact.
“We have changed our focus in recent years to looking at how we can optimise product. It is a given that bad produce can be removed but what happens to product that is of a good enough standard to be processed is now key to the resource revolution. Optimising produce, getting more out of what comes onto the production line from field to fork is now at the heart of TOMRA Sorting Food’s ethos.”
In practice, this shift in approach to resource management is evident in where sorting takes place. In the past it has been about providing machines which allow farmers to sort product in the field – harvesters which can identify and remove bad product at the very first stage of the processing chain so that money and energy is not spent taking poor quality produce away from the field.
TOMRA Sorting Food’s sorting and peeling solutions typically recover 5-10 per cent of produce through higher yields and better utilisation, reducing pressure on the food chain and cutting food waste. That is equivalent to 25,000 trucks of potatoes per year.
Pieter adds: “Today, the entire food processing sector is far more efficient, in terms of energy and waste, and there are many more types of processing tools available for the production line to get the most out of produce. A tomato which may not be aesthetically pleasing may still be fine in terms of food quality and safety. It may not cut it as a tomato for a salad but for tomato sauce or puree it is absolutely acceptable. In the past that tomato may have gone to waste when sorted in the field but thanks to innovations in technology it can now be processed and used for food.
“This is the beginning of the ‘intelligent machines’ concept – a food sorter which goes beyond good and bad sorting to one which can optimise product. At TOMRA Sorting Food we are already giving machine operators greater control over the sort they want to carry out with our unique user interface which can be installed on machines but integrating that control and human intellect into machines is how the next resource revolution begins.”
In conclusion, Lorraine says that resource productivity and optimisation must increase: “We have no choice but to find better ways of doing things – over the next 40 years 30 per cent more people will need to be fed with a reducing amount of available farmland. Leading the resource revolution is a global issue and TOMRA, in conjunction with our customers and many other companies, is providing sustainable solutions for a more food secure future.”