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Blueberry quality ensured gently at high speeds

03 December 2014

The introduction of a Tomra Primus-D optical belt sorter is providing accurate quality monitoring of blueberries at leading UK soft fruit grower S&A Produce, and has played a key role in enabling the company to pack the product in-house, thereby greatly increasing throughput and cost efficiencies.

A family-owned business with over 40 years’ experience, S&A Produce grows, packs, imports and exports quality soft fruit and asparagus, supplying top retail customers across the UK and mainland Europe.  In the last five years, blueberries have grown phenomenally in popularity and now account for some 30% of the company’s business.  To meet this demand S&A source the product from all areas of the world, according to the seasons, in order to ensure year-round supply to its customers.

Initially the blueberries were imported pre-packed and then quality inspected and labelled before being distributed.  However, this was a slow process and with demand increasing, S&A sought a solution that would enable it to import the blueberries in bulk and handle the packing itself.  Making this change means each container from abroad now contains around 20 tonnes of blueberries as opposed to just three tonnes pre-packed.

At S&A’s packing operation in Marden, near Hereford, the blueberries are packed and sealed into trays.  Prior to this, the Tomra Primus-D sorter uses colour cameras to spot discoloured product and advanced laser technology to detect soft berries.

Berries are passed under the cameras and lasers on an O-ring belt and those that are rejected are air blasted onto a cross conveyor above the line.  This system ensures gentle handling of the product throughout the operation so that the packed berries maintain their firmness. The Primus-D can handle up to 3.6 tonnes of blueberries per hour, enabling it to feed two tray sealing lines.

“Product quality is vital in the competitive soft fruits market so to have a machine whose sole focus is on quality was hugely important to us when we took on the packing operation for the blueberries,” explains Jan-Willem Naerebout, S&A’s Group Operations Director.

“We carefully assessed the different technologies available and what particularly attracted us to the Tomra solution was that, unlike other systems which used the bounce of the berries to detect which were soft, the Tomra laser technique means there is no need to touch the product and this further ensures its quality when it reaches the pack.  To us, this is a ‘best in class’ solution.”

S&A was the first company to install the Primus-D in the UK, with the system supplied by Tomra’s agent Stein Solutions, who represent Tomra Sorting Solutions in the UK and Ireland.  

“We have received great support from Stein Solutions,” says Jan-Willem.  “Because this was a new technology, the company arranged for us to trial the machine over several months to confirm its capabilities.  The installation went very smoothly and we received comprehensive training on-site to ensure we can get the best out of the machine.  The Primus-D has proved very reliable but we know we have excellent support available if we need it.”

While S&A initially projected a payback on investment on the new line of three years, the company says that larger throughput volumes means this is now likely to be under two years.  Just as important, says Jan-Willem, is the added value that the line enables it to offer its customers.

“We are now far more flexible and can be more responsive to customer requests, for example additional volume or changes to pack sizes,” he explains.  “Clearly being able to maintain quality is critical to this and is where the Tomra Primus-D provides peace of mind.”


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