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Meeting the need for versatility

28 January 2019

Choosing the right X-ray inspection system can provide long-term advantages in increasingly quality-conscious markets, argues Ciaran Murphy. 

Product quality can be a key differentiator in establishing and maintaining brand image for many in the food industry. Retailers are very mindful of their reputations today and for that reason are imposing ever stricter quality standards on their suppliers.

Some retailers have increased their requirements for suppliers when it comes to product inspection. Where previously metal detection was mandatory, now there is a growing need for manufacturers to undertake more comprehensive quality control checks through the use of X-ray inspection. 

This clearly has financial implications and some food manufacturers may be tempted to select equipment purely on price as part of a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. However, this is a short-sighted approach and is one that is also at odds with building a valued brand – companies who invest time in understanding the potential of X-ray inspection technology may discover that an additional outlay at the start can deliver immense dividends in the long run, in addition to enhancing food safety.

In terms of foreign body detection, one of the main benefits of X-ray technology is its ability to spot a wider array of items in addition to metal, such as glass, bones and dense plastics. As production machinery becomes increasingly sophisticated, leading to fewer personnel on the factory floor, the ability to have an all-encompassing means of foreign body detection can provide a valuable reassurance to a business and its customer base

Changing requirements
Equally true, quality standards are continually changing, and companies need to keep up with new regulations or specifications.  The pressures of maximising production throughput, while often having to cope with the introduction of new product varieties and frequent changeovers, can put additional pressure on quality control procedures.  A low-quality X-ray inspection system might not have the necessary element of ‘future proofing’.

X-ray inspection involves the projection of X-rays onto a sensor or detector. As the product or pack passes through the X-ray beam, only the residual energy reaches the sensor. Measurement of the difference in the absorption level of the X-ray energy between the product and a foreign body enables the foreign body to be detected.

When choosing a suitable X-ray inspection system, it is important to consider the type of products that will need to be inspected, the most frequent types of foreign bodies to be searched for, and the length and frequency of production runs. 

An early consideration might be whether a single or dual energy machine is required. A single energy inspection system uses one X-ray sensor to scan the product. This means there needs to be a reasonable variation in the density of the product and the foreign body in order for the machine to successfully identify it. These types of machines will have varying degrees of power and also varying flexibility in their ability to select the correct power level for a particular application; the more sophisticated the machine, the greater its ability to handle different detection requirements to meet changing needs.

Dual-energy systems offer even greater levels of sensitivity and detection through the use of two X-ray sensors which generate two images and therefore a much better contrast. This enables them to more easily pick out low-density foreign bodies, such as small pieces of bone in poultry fillets or porous stones in nuts.

However, quality standards today involve much more than the prevention of foreign bodies in products. A deformed or broken product, a missing item in a pack, and even a damaged pack are quality issues that can irritate consumers and generate complaints. 

Additional benefits
It is in this area that investment in X-ray inspection can offer additional benefits thanks to the many other quality problems that the technology can help to prevent. X-ray can detect broken, undersized or missing items in packs, be that five chocolate bars in a multipack instead of six, or a row of ice lollies with one wooden stick missing. Mis-shaped product – for example a beef burger that has not been formed properly or a broken biscuit, and sub-standard packaging such as dented tins – are other imperfections that can be identified. It is also feasible to look at under-filled components in ready meals, product with cracks or fissures, grains stuck together in granular and powder products, and missing metal clips.

Other quality control applications that the technology can undertake include product grading by length and checking the presence of bottle caps and fill levels.

X-ray inspection systems can also carry out effective weight estimation. One advantage of this compared to a more traditional weight check using checkweighers is that they can identify a problem that weighing alone cannot.  A classic application is biscuits or croissants that are meant to contain a filling. It is feasible for the products to be of the correct weight but missing the filling.  A checkweigher would allow these to pass, but an X-ray will not. 

Another significant benefit of X-ray inspection is the ability of some machines to offer full traceability. In the event of a complaint, data management systems linked to X-ray inspection and labelling can enable retrieval of the x-ray image of a particular pack, establishing beyond doubt whether or not there was a problem and thus helping to eliminate false claims.

Ultimately, the drive for quality is inextricably linked to the need to protect and maintain brand reputation – of the food processor and manufacturer and also their retail customers – particularly when supplying private label products. Consumers are becoming more demanding and less brand-loyal, while the emergence of social media means they have much greater power to affect a brand’s positioning.

A loss of brand reputation can have a negative effect on sales, while the financial implications of a product recall, including a possible heavy retailer fine, can be equally immense. In these circumstances the investment in a suitably versatile and flexible X-ray inspection system is a wise decision. Exploring the market thoroughly and selecting a machine with the potential to meet both current and future requirements offers a long-term solution that can enhance a company’s reputation, provide a greater return on investment and deliver added value, all of which will lead to improvements to the bottom line.

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