Faster, more efficient checks help to cut waste, improve food quality and protect brands from product recalls, with testing covering everything from food safety and allergen controls, to detecting the degree of baking, and optimising fruit harvest times.
For years, machinery vibration has been one of the biggest challenges for manufacturers when it comes to analysing foods on the production line. However, developments in optical physics – often inspired by NASA – have led to sensors that can deal better with movement, so they can be used directly on vibrating production lines.
“When you put these sensors on the line checking every slice of your food, very often these are very sensitive to movements,” said Julie Dimakou, principal consultant in technology and innovation at PA Consulting. “Ideally we want the camera or sensor to be on the line or in a liquid so we can send the data directly,” she said, adding that better computing power and improved sensor technologies increasingly can be adjusted to work within systems that vibrate.
Such sensors can be used for all kinds of analysis, typically fat, protein and moisture content, but also for acids and allergens, depending on the company’s needs.
Improving allergen sensitivity
Currently, there is a range of technologies for allergen detection in the development stage, as progress in spectroscopic methods is only now beginning to have the sensitivity to detect extremely low allergen concentrations.
Ziylo is one start-up working in the sector, which has developed a new sugar sensor that can be used to detect low levels of the milk sugar lactose, a common allergen and cause of product recalls.
“Of course, all the companies that want to quality control for lactose-free will be very interested,” Dimakou said. “…And you can imagine that you can do it for other allergens.”
Building in optimum performance
Although process analytics should be an important consideration in food production from the beginning, most companies only look at it as an afterthought when building a new factory. Considering it earlier can increase efficiency, reduce downtime, and cut the incidence of brand-damaging recalls.
“They very often have waste and downtime or they throw away lots of product,” said Dimakou. “We have a look at the lines and say here are the short-term, medium-term and very long-term solutions. Process analytics would be the medium-term solutions.”
“The problem is the manufacturers go out to the technology sales when they have a new factory, but often don’t have machinery that’s optimised for their products. If you make something mainstream, like milk, it’s easier, but if you make something specialised, like a fancy type of chocolate, we can make a real difference.”
For chocolate and other products made as a continuous film, for example, it is now possible to automatically measure its thickness. This avoids the expense of overselling, as well as underselling.
“You are not allowed to sell less than you promise so everybody sells a little bit more,” she said. “Chocolate is a very expensive raw material so you don’t want to add grams you don’t need.”
Other emerging technologies in the sector include infrared fruit analysis, which can sort strawberries, grapes or apples according to firmness, and Vis/NIR spectroscopy to analyse fruit and vegetable quality – such as checking for black spots in potatoes – without needing to destroy the product.
These methods can create major savings for manufacturers in reduced labour costs and product recalls and, through more reliable quality, improve relationships with retailers. However, Dimakou says some of the main advantages come when a factory review to improve process analytics leads to a broader overhaul of a plant.
“When we go and install the sensors on a production line the main benefit is we can then change the line itself,” she said. “…We can move from batch processes onto continuous processes. This is the big benefit with our clients with process analytics. Of course they want to increase the yield but the big benefit comes when we change the machinery.”