Food Industry to Adopt More Machine Vision in Response to New U.S. Regulations
| By: Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor
Last month, U.S. President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law, requiring new levels of product traceability in the food processing industry. According to machine vision experts in the food processing industry, the new regulations will help improve public health, while opening up new applications for machine vision solutions.
The Act includes 19 new provisions that will impact the food processing industry. Several of these provisions are expected to increase demand for machine vision, including:
Upon request, the FDA will gain expanded access to food production facility records. The agency may obtain records for tracking purposes or if there is reason to suspect a potential public health risk…and,
The FDA, in coordination with the produce industry, will create a new method of effectively tracking and tracing fruits and vegetables, to ensure any contaminated produce is located and recalled in a safe and timely manner.
These new regulations apply to both domestic producers as well as overseas suppliers of food products.
Split on Impact of Regulations
The new Act is quite new, resulting in a variety of opinions among vision suppliers as to the regulations impact on their industry. “The overall structure of the regulation is in place, but the details are still being discovered,” explains Glenn Archer, Principal of Arch Consulting Enterprises, a manufacturing rep for the food processing industry and independent engineering firm with specialty in machine vision. “The overall goal is to make food safer for the consumer, but how do you get to that? What role does each constituency have to making food safe? That’s where the rubber makes the road. In the past, customers felt that as long as they followed good manufacturing practices, they were okay with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA]. That’s changing because now it’s up to the company to meet the federal regulation, not just make a good effort. In the past, the food process may have had two weeks to respond to an incident; today, if you didn’t react in 4 hours, the FDA is asking why not? And the only way to do that is to use automation with MES [Manufacturing Execution Systems], SCM [Supply Chain Management], and ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] systems that extend from the top of the company, down through middleware, production, and scheduling systems, to the vision system or scanner on the factory floor tracking what ingredients went into the cereal box.”
Tracing food ingredients through processing to the finished product will use many technologies, from the ubiquitous laser barcode scanner to vision systems and RFID readers, according to Mark Langridge, National Sales Manager for SICK (Minneapolis, Minnesota), a company that specializes on packaging and warehousing. “We think the Food Safety Modernization Act will impact the food processing industry considerably,” says Langridge. “Many customers have pretty good ideas as to what the changes [from the Act] will imply for their operations. For example, there’s a big emphasis on food safety in terms of traceability in food ingredients, where the ingredients come from, the overall supply chain, and the destination of the end product. Last year, a lot of companies were doing recalls because the wrong ingredients were put in the wrong bags, or contaminated bags, or the egg scare. All of these cases would have been more efficiently dealt with if the company had 100% traceability in place. If you’re looking at ingredients, 2D codes, or OCR to read product information, machine vision takes priority. We expect 2D codes, which have been around for a long time but are used little by the food industry, to become more popular because they can pack more information about the product and packaging than a barcode. But, If it’s at the case and pallet level, that’s when RFID will finally get its chance to come to the technology forefront.”
According to Langridge, a sensor intelligence company like SICK, which supplies most commonly used tracking technologies to manufacturing, is unbiased about what technology is used. Rather, he says, the most important things are matching the right technology to the application, and making it appear seamless and easy to operate to the end users. “Whether it’s a barcode reader, hand held scanner, or reading the wrapper on a product, case, or pallet, the look and feel should be the same to the end user. On the backend, where you integrate the data into the MES, it is exactly the same whether it’s an RFID reader or vision system.”
Packaging the Future
While track and trace applications are expected to grow significantly thanks to new U.S. regulations, the food processing industry still depends heavily on machine vision systems for quality checks of the food product itself. “The concerns of our customers are centered around decreasing labor costs, quality assurance, sorting, decreasing system costs, and interoperability with third party software,” says John Phillips, Senior Product Manager at Pleora Technologies (Kanata, Ontario, Canada), a specialist in networked video connectivity solutions. “The longer reach and higher speeds of Gigabit Ethernet compared to Camera Link and other camera connectivity protocols is directing the design of many food inspection systems. Recently, we’ve supplied cameras to OEMs for waterfall grain and grape inspection, to name a couple. In both cases, the customer was interested in the higher bandwidth afforded by GigE to increase the sorter’s throughput, less cabling, and – occasionally – the opportunity to place the processing elements farther away from the sorter to meet space requirements.”
As machine vision continues to grow in capability and ease of use, it seems likely that machine vision suppliers can expect to get more business from the food industry. “Machine vision allows you to see codes 100 times better than a laser scanner can see it,” concludes Arch Enterprises’ Archer. “No false reads, or rejecting stuff because the code is folded or damaged. For many applications, such as reading plastic or glass bottles where the codes are created as part of the mold, vision is the only answer to new FDA regulations.
“I think that we’ll see regulations continue to get tighter and tighter to protect the consumer,” adds James Gardner, Technical Manager for Keyence Corporation of America (Itasca, Illinois). “While we haven’t see a huge impact on our business yet from the new food safety regulations, we’re very experienced in the pharmaceutical industry, and we’re able to adapt of lot of the security, system changes, and data I/O issues from that industry to the food industry. Bar-coding and product traceability are nothing new to production, and these regulations will only see more checkpoints come into place for the food industry. Machine vision systems are certainly a viable solution. Cost, speed, reliability and simplicity are all other factors that make vision based stand alone readers very attractive. Keyence Corporation has been heavily involved and at the forefront in production traceability applications from other manufacturing arenas such as the automotive and semiconductor sectors for the last 15+ years. I think the new food safety act is just the beginning of these necessary types of consumer protection regulation.”