Are You Going to Eat That?
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
The food and beverage processing industry has been a key customer of the machine vision industry almost since its commercial inception.
“Food and beverage packaging was an early adopter of machine vision — not only on the track-and-trace side, but also on lot codes, UV cure checks for the glue on packages, structured light for glass inspection, and backlighting for fill level and cap checks,” says Matt Pinter, Director of Engineering at LED light manufacturer Smart Vision Lights. “Now, we’re seeing a lot of interest in the SWIR [shortwave infrared] spectrum as more commercial lights with strong performance and long life come to the market.”
The food and beverage industry also has driven machine vision’s need for speed, says Steve Kinney, General Manager of Business Development at CCS Inc., manufacturer of lighting solutions for machine vision. “They were the first industry to drive us to 60 frames per second for canning and bottling lines,” Kinney says. “That’s why we developed our PowerFlash strobe series that outputs greater than 16 times the light of DC operation in very short pulses down to 1 µs duration, which helps to freeze the fast-moving object in an image and reduce blur.”
It’s been several years since the U.S. FDA mandated that food processors in key segments, such as meat and fruit, adopt 100 percent track-and-trace systems for tracking production. But according to machine vision specialists, it’s been in the last year or two that food processors started to get serious about quality inspection and traceability.
“The food and beverage industry, like the medical device industry, is required to track products for public safety,” says Bradley Weber, Product Marketing Manager for machine vision at Datalogic, supplier of camera-based code reading, smart cameras, and laser marking equipment. “However, they’ve been a little lackadaisical in the past, even in the face of regulation. But the regular news stories about E. coli outbreaks and the effect they have on companies are prompting them to get serious about 100 percent traceability. Where they had one code reader in the past, now they’re ordering five more for 100 percent data integrity.”
The sweet spot for machine vision in food processing has traditionally been on the packaging side, hence the attention to barcodes. While automated barcode reading has been the largest application segment, optical character recognition (OCR) for date codes and product descriptions has also become critical.
Datalogic has developed an advanced OCR tool that combines character reading with pattern searches for identifying characters, even when printed on busy background graphics. “Our advanced OCR tool is for applications where traditional OCR and code reading simply won’t work,” says Weber. “We’ve used it in kitting applications, for example, where we need to read codes but can’t always guarantee the code is facing the right way. In these cases, we can verify based on the pattern of the label, printed text, or other characteristics of the item in the image.”
This Line Is Clean
Baumer GmbH, supplier of sensors, encoders, measuring instruments, and components for automated image-processing and industrial processes, offers its VeriSens line of smart vision sensors for a variety of packaging applications in the food and beverage industries, thanks to its intuitive icon-driven programming interface.
“Our free software package and cost-effective design, coupled with easy programmability, makes the VeriSens line a great for vision sensor, presence/absence, and similar applications,” says Greg Matherly, Western Region Sales Manager at Baumer.
When it comes to processing food, few steps are as important as cleaning the equipment. “The U.S. is becoming more aware of equipment hygiene and how the right equipment design can really make a difference in turnaround and productivity,” says Christ Makris, Director of Product Management and Marketing at Baumer. “While Europe has equipment design standards to simplify and improve clean-in-place equipment from organizations such as the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG), in the U.S., the customer needs to force the equipment manufacturer to design systems that are easily cleaned and maintained — and in most cases, the customer doesn’t.
“That’s changing, and we at Baumer have designed everything from our discrete process sensors to machine vision solutions to help food processing plants and similar industries to achieve their hygiene goals with minimum time and effort,” Makris adds. “After all, the faster the equipment gets clean, the faster it can be put back into operation, and the more profitable the facility.”
Luckily, U.S. manufacturers are starting to look at local regulations and general manufacturing practices such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) operational guidelines to improve their operations and limit the risk of contamination.
Discerning populations in developing countries continue to grow as does their need for nourishment. But as seen in industries from computers to fashion, demand rarely stops at need. Rather, once the need is satiated, demand segues to desire, and desire demands perfection. As people continue to demand more from their food processors, automated inspection systems like machine vision will benefit from a large and growing customer base.