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 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% increase in food production.
TOMRA technical director Pieter Willems says 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 said: "Research is being carried out with consumers to discover what they perceive as good or poor quality product and how much lower quality produce is judged to be acceptable.
"Consumers have a tolerance to this with processed fresh produce, but it’s about getting the balance right and 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 unnecessary waste as you then have fries which are too short or thin.
"However, if a machine is capable of identifying and separating potatoes which are most suitable for French fries from those which are more suited to potato wedges or crisps, you have a much more efficient production line and a happier, more satisfied consumer.
"It’s 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 like 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.
"By removing this ‘good/bad, yes/no’ element, the amount of food which could be saved and processed rather than being filtered out as waste, would be phenomenal. We are talking millions of tonnes of product being saved, optimum use of food and maximum yield from farm to fork."
TOMRA’s focus on research and development has enabled it to develop a range of innovative sorting machines that are able to detect and remove the smallest of defects and foreign material from production lines.
TOMRA Sorting Solutions vice-president Lorraine Dundon said: "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 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.
"For many years, our focus was about designing machines capable of eliminating foreign material and poor quality produce.
"In the beginning that was a challenge, but technology has come on so far. Now 99% of foreign material and bad product is removed and this is a given across the industry."
TOMRA sorting machines use various sensors that go far beyond the common use of colour cameras. Near Infra-Red (NIR) spectroscopy enables an analysis of the molecular structure of a product, while 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.
Dundon said: "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’s ethos."
TOMRA’s sorting and peeling solutions typically recover 5%-10% 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 said: "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.
"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."