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Pick and check

10 May 2012

Checkweighers keep food factories running; the better the equipment, the smoother - and more productive - the process. FP Express checks out two recent case studies from Kenya and Market Drayton, Shropshire.

Who would have thought the humble checkweigher could actually contribute to tea pickers in far-flung Kenya getting a fairer day's pay? It may be difficult to believe, but that's exactly what's happening, thanks to Avery Weigh-Tronix.

How? Traditionally, tea collection clerks collected the tea in open sacks from the farmers, weigh it using a spring balance and issue a handwritten receipt. These sacks are then taken back to the factory on a truck, on which much of the tea is spilt.

``The receiving bay at the factory then checkweighs the delivery and the factory pay the farmers based on this delivered weight,'' says the company. ``This can cause a problem since the farmers want paying for the tea they've picked. Also, at a time when harvests are low, the Kenyan Tea Development Agency (KTDA) is keen to improve efficiency and minimise loss.''

That's where Avery Weigh-Tronix comes into the picture. Twenty of the 54 factories are using an alternative solution proposed by the machinery manufacturer. ``The equipment consists of an electronic scale, a personal digital assistant and a printer for the tea collections; a floor scale and indicator for the factory receiving bay; and a Microsoft server with back office software.''

The factory manager uses the system to assign the tea collection clerk a route in the morning. After collecting their equipment, the clerk and truck driver enter their passwords into the PDA before leaving for the first collection point. ``When they arrive, the clerk hooks the scale onto the back of the truck and enters the farmer's code into the PDA. Each sack of tea is then weighed and this data transmitted to the PDA using Bluetooth technology.''

After the whole batch is weighed, a receipt is printed by the clerk and given to the farmer. ``The PDA automatically synchronises and transmits the weight data from the collection points to the main server in the factory using GSM technology. The data is also stored on the PDA's memory card.''

After the collections, the truck returns to the factory. ``Someone then weighs the delivered tea in the receiving bay using the floor-scale and indicator, which is connected to the back office software,'' says the company. ``The amount of tea collected from the farm can then be compared to that delivered.''

``KTDA is keen to improve its process efficiency, particularly at a time when the tea harvests are lower than normal,'' says John Machagua, product engineer for Avery Weigh-Tronix in Africa. ``To achieve this they need data on which to base decisions. A key area of waste has always been the amount of tea lost during transit.

``In addition, the farmers and pickers, who are shareholders in KTDA, were not happy that they were not being paid for the tea that they actually picked. This is an issue that has now been resolved. Using this system all the weights are recorded and reported in real-time directly into the central server. It removes human error and provides real data that factories can use to improve their operations.''

You don't have to go as far as Africa to see a checkweigher in action in a food and beverage manufacturing plant, however. Take OCS Checkweighers: the German manufacturer recently worked with Muller Dairy in Market Drayton, Shropshire.

The requirement from the dairy was a series of X-ray machines on their production lines. It sounds easy but Muller was quite picky about the quality of the machines. It needed them to reliably check fill levels and detect foreign objects from one system during production. Was OCS up to the task?

First, however, Muller carried out tests using the equipment of other manufacturers. The company wasn't satisfied with the results, and turned to OCS instead. In particular, they ran tests with the latest OCS X-ray scanner which involved new camera technology. The process of installing the scanner didn't occur overnight. First, it was installed at the main sites of Aretsried, Freising, Leppersdorf and Market Drayton for testing.

The decision was made once Muller employees had had a chance to experience the capability of the scanner and see its benefits. The requirement was an X-ray system that had very low false reject rates and which was able to check and reject incorrectly filled products. ``Not only the innovative capacity of OCS impressed us but also the extremely high detection accuracy, outstanding technology and extraordinarily robust design of the scanner.''

The relationship between Muller and OCS has been fruitful for both sides. In cooperation with Muller, for instance, OCS has developed custom-made software for the dairy industry. This software calculates and allows the rotation of layers by up to 15 degrees.

``That was a major challenge,'' says Heinz Peter Schmidt, project manager at OCS. ``We invested much effort and resources in the development but the result is worth all the efforts and we're proud to be able to provide a software solution perfectly tailored to the requirements of the dairy industry.''

Machines also needed to be designed for the dairy industry because of the amount of humidity in the air during milk processing. As a result, the control cabinet is not cooled by ambient air but by an integrated heat exchanger.

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