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The Factory of the Future

Article for Potato Business from TOMRA Food

Potato processors of the future will be able to use data acquired from their lines to improve efficiency, sustainability, and profitability. Jeffry Steemans, Global Product Manager Digital at TOMRA Food, explains how, and gives examples of this already coming true.


"The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment."

Those provocative words might have seemed fanciful when they were written by Warren G. Bennis, the internationally-respected organizational consultant and leadership studies pioneer, in 1991 - but now it is far easier to visualize them coming true. Indeed, Bennis' prediction aligns with three trends that TOMRA Food customers often mention during conversations:

1) Every euro or dollar counts, and food processors search for even the smallest profitability gains from their production lines.

2) Food quality and production targets become higher every year, while optimizing and controlling the quality of a food production line requires frequent sampling, classification, data analysis and constant fine-tuning of machine settings, which is increasingly complex and time-sensitive.

3) Most production plants have a mix of very old machines, recent machines and new machines – and the plant team has to make these work together, to produce increasing quality and increasing volumes at decreasing costs.

To help fulfil all these objectives, machines will become more intelligent and self-optimizing – but despite what Bennis said about the dog being there to stop the man from touching the equipment, machines will still need human input. Just as a self-driving car still requires a driver and a self-flying plane still needs a pilot, a food processing machine still needs an operator.


So how much of the future can we clearly see in 2021? What does it mean for a food production plant to use big data, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things? Let's take a brief look at the methods, systems, and technologies that will become increasingly commonplace in the future, some of which are emerging.

Connected sorters become an intelligence center

At TOMRA Food, we go beyond creating a food sorter that takes the optimal sorting decision: we add live data and information to the equation so that the plant's staff can improve their efficiency as a team and in their individual jobs. This means the food sorter is no longer just an isolated piece of machinery that sorts; it's also an intelligence center for the whole production line. This makes operations easier and more efficient in so many ways: quality management, process engineering and optimization, machine maintenance, and purchasing crops from growers.

At the heart of this intelligence center is the TOMRA Insight subscription-based service, a recent innovation already delivering significant commercial gains and which will become even more valuable as its capabilities expand in the future. TOMRA Insight turns sorting machines into connected devices that generate valuable process data, transforming sorting from an operational process into a strategic management tool. This data is gathered in near real-time, stored securely in the cloud, and can be accessed from anywhere (and across plants) via web-based desktop and mobile devices.

Acting on this data pays off in many ways. Downtime is reduced by monitoring machine health in near real-time, supporting the management of predictive and condition-based maintenance and preventing unscheduled machine shutdowns. Throughput is maximized by evaluating throughput variations to optimize sorting equipment. Operating costs are reduced by identifying gaps in production and analyzing potential root causes. And sorting to target quality is enhanced by having accurate material-composition data that enables decisions to be based on more detailed information.

TOMRA Insight

Nine examples of how data really helps

processing line. What can the processor's team do with the data and information that is shown in TOMRA Insight? Here are nine great examples.

1) Two minutes after the production line starts, the purchasing manager checks the TOMRA Insight quality report and sees that there is an 84% good product and 16% defects being kicked out. Suppose this is not in line with the agreed quality. In that case, the purchasing manager can work together with the grower to identify which defects were found (brown spots, rot, pieces of plastic or metal cans, etc.) and how to improve the quality of the next batches.

2) The quality manager checks the charts with the incoming defect flow and ejected defect flows. If they are consistent and stable, he is assured that his packaged product's quality will be within the customer's quality specifications. When TOMRA Insight shows a sudden peak in defect detections, the quality manager can quickly check the accept stream quality. This will reduce the amount of rework, customer quality complaints and call-backs.

3) The plant manager, suspecting that some of his TOMRA sorting machines are overloaded, checks the TOMRA Insight load report and sees that there are indeed frequent overload peaks. Now he can give objective data to the finance manager to get approval for a higher capacity machine.

4) The plant manager trusts his night shift team but is reassured each morning when he sees that the TOMRA Insight night shift report confirms the team did a great job: they produced the agreed quantities at the agreed quality level.

5) The process manager discovers in the TOMRA Insight load report that when he optimizes the sorter's infeed, he can squeeze one more ton of potatoes per hour over the sorter without impacting the sorting quality.


6) The regional operations manager calls his plant managers and process engineers together to share best practices: the TOMRA Insight reports show that one of the plants produces significantly more with a better yield. This information leads to the implementation of their ideas at other plants.

7) The IT manager needs to set up a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system and a MES (manufacturing execution system). With TOMRA Insight, he has a 'sandbox' environment to explore and experiment with and can select the most relevant information to integrate into his international corporate IT system. In contrast, selected users can access TOMRA Insight in parallel for all the other information. The IT manager has a review with TOMRA every quarter to discuss the new functionalities that have been released for TOMRA Insight, to evaluate whether he would like to integrate these.

8) The shift manager calls TOMRA because the team needs to set up the sorters for a new type of crop from a new supplier, and his expert operator is at home. In an immediate response, the TOMRA Service engineer, sitting in his home office, uses his laptop computer to set up a secured connection to the sorter and helps the shift manager set up a new program. Within an hour, the sorter is ready for the new crop.

9) A maintenance manager in Sao Paulo, finding that he has a problem that he cannot fix, calls the TOMRA helpdesk. In response to this request, a TOMRA service engineer activates TOMRA Visual Assist on his laptop and sets up a secured connection to the camera in the maintenance engineer's smartphone. This enables the service engineer to see what the maintenance manager sees, helping him quickly solve it. Within half an hour, the sorter is ready, and production can resume.

Remote assistance and augmented reality

The ability of the potato processing lines of the future to access specialist support, no matter where in the world they are located and what time of day or night it is, will be a huge practical advantage. And in this respect, too, a recently-launched technology shows us how this can work. By using TOMRA Visual Assist, a field service engineer can provide customers with advice just as if they were standing in front of their machine. This ability to solve problems remotely will result in more uptime and better machine performance and reduce the need for in-person visits.


TOMRA Visual Assist is very easy to use and requires no equipment other than a mobile phone with a camera. When a potato processor requests support through a message, email, or phone call, the field service engineer sends an invitation to initiate the session. When the app opens, it seamlessly links through to a call with the TOMRA expert best suited to help with the specific challenge the processing line faces – someone who knows the line's application and the mapping profiles of their sorting technologies. The customer and service engineer communicate through voice and video, with the engineer directing the customer to point their mobile phone camera at what they need to see. If necessary, the factory and the service engineer can also share documents via TOMRA Visual Assist or annotate images to explain and clarify directions.

More futuristic still, this technology also enables the use of advanced tools such as Smart Glasses, which provide an augmented reality remote intervention that leaves the technician or engineer on-site with their hands-free to operate with maximum safety.

Plans for a TOMRA Machine Monitoring Center

These emerging technologies give us a good idea of what to expect in the future. And like so many technologies, they're evolving. The TOMRA Insight data platform, for example, is becoming more powerful all the time because its functionalities and features are reviewed and updated every three weeks in response to customers' needs and priorities. And the importance of remote assistance is reflected in TOMRA's plans to create a Machine Monitoring Center, a data operations center where experts will monitor all connected TOMRA equipment globally – and more than just providing machine users with reactive advice, it will also offer proactive services. Support will be available for equipment monitoring, operational data analytics, business intelligence, and data science.

There are other exciting ideas and innovations in the pipeline at TOMRA which I'm not yet at liberty to talk about. Still, there is one thing I can say: knowledge really is power, and through fact-based decision-making, the factory of the future will be able to improve operating efficiencies, reduce food waste, enhance sustainability, precisely meet market demands, and increase profitability. It's a future to look forward to!


Topics: Potatoes, Equipment & Technology

Marijke Bellemans

Written by Marijke Bellemans

Marketing Communications Manager - TOMRA Food