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New optics for sorting

Culling and sorting is a labour-intensive job at most potato storage facilities and misses can happen when the human eye gets tired. Frequent breaks for employees can be costly when harvest is in full swing.


April 6, 2009
By Rosalie I. Tennison

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The auto sorter addresses several issues for growers, including quality control, labour costs and consistency in grading.


Culling and sorting is a labour-intensive job at most potato storage
facilities and misses can happen when the human eye gets tired.
Frequent breaks for employees can be costly when harvest is in full
swing. Innovative equipment from RJ Herbert Engineering Limited in the
United Kingdom solves these issues and frees up employees for other
tasks. According to the company, the DDS2000ML Auto-Sort “reduces
labour requirements, maintains quality standards and increases
profitability.”

As of the fall of 2008, only three of the Herbert sorters were in North
America and two were sold by HJV Equipment of Alliston, Ontario. The
horticultural sales manager for Ontario at HJV, Paul Van den Borre says
the greatest value for growers is the “quality issue.” “The sorter
takes out bad product consistently,” Van den Borre explains. “Consumers
want better quality and this machine can give it.”

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A Windows-based computer manages all the operations of the equipment
including a high-resolution touch screen that allows the grower to
choose the colour and size of the tubers. The “eye” of the sorter can
be set to recognize the preferred colour of different varieties and a
uniform shape of the potatoes. Depending on the variety and its common
size, the Auto-Sort can handle from 35 mm potatoes to 85 mm potatoes in
record time. As an example, the Auto-Sort will push through 21 tonnes
of 50 mm potatoes in one hour. “This is better than the human eye
because it can handle more than what humans can do,” continues Van den
Borre. “Humans lose interest and can’t see every potato at once. Plus,
humans get tired.”

While there are a number of companies that make optical sorters, the
Herbert version is considered the most innovative because it was
specifically designed for potatoes and carrots. With the ability to
recognize colour variations using a colour library set by the producer,
the Auto-Sort ensures that a consistent product is delivered to stores.
“Retailers will call if there are quality issues,” Van den Borre
comments. “So, it is important to maintain quality. If you don’t, you
might lose a customer. Each variety has its own colour library, which
can be saved to meet the needs of the producer. If your soil tends to
make red skins a different shade, that information can be saved.”

In addition, the machine can be set to detect imperfections and reject
those tubers creating an even more attractive product for consumers. By
providing consistent quality and colour to stores, producers are
helping retailers satisfy consumers.

Granted the Herbert Auto-Sort requires a significant investment because
of the shipping costs and the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar
against British sterling, but Van den Borre believes the cost will be
recouped in the long run because labour costs will be redistributed or
reduced and quality control will result in premium prices for the crop.

As with any new piece of equipment, there is a learning curve while the
grower becomes comfortable with the programming of the Auto-Sort.
However, support is close by at HJV or with the help of Herbert
technicians. Van den Borre says a glitch in one of the sorters the
company sold was solved by taking a photo of the problem and e-mailing
it to Herbert. A solution arrived by return e-mail within minutes. “As
owners learn how to operate the machine, the efficiency improves,”
comments Van den Borre.

Additional benefits of the Auto-Sort, besides the reduced labour costs
and consistent grading, include low maintenance, ungradable software,
increased earnings and production flexibility. When the crop is coming
out of the ground and needs to be graded and packaged or graded and
stored, and labour is in high demand, using the Herbert Auto-Sort will
free up labour for other tasks while providing a consistent product for
waiting customers. With its better-than-human optical capability, the
equipment is the latest electronic grading tool.