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Can product inspection support productivity goals?

30 March 2020

Mike Pipe explains how the latest x-ray inspection systems are able to support wider production goals, such as optimising uptime and reducing operational costs. 

Product inspection systems are a necessity on food production lines. They aid conformance with legal requirements and retailer specifications, prevent contaminants from entering the supply chain and protect brand reputation for quality and consistency. 

The technology involved in product inspection has become increasingly sophisticated. For example, vision inspection and x-ray detection have been added to the more traditional metal detection and checkweighing options. Detection sensitivity has greatly improved to allow much smaller contaminants to be identified reliably – even in challenging applications where historically moisture, temperature or packaging material have affected performance.

But, for the busy production manager intent upon delivering quality product on time while protecting the bottom line, many of the technological advancements in product inspection can seem rather remote from the daily challenges they face. 

Customer diversity
Enthusiasm for the latest technological developments can be variable: and in some cases the aspirations of the equipment manufacturer have failed to align with those of the customer. Put simply, it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles you can offer, if none of them resonate with the realities of the production line. 

It can be difficult for equipment manufacturers to determine what the customer wants, because end-user needs are so diverse. For example, the customer could be a global food brand that produces 150 different products in a year. This equates to 150 changeovers that could limit production capacity. In this production environment, the emphasis is likely to be on ease and swiftness of changeovers. Alternatively, the customer could be a smaller manufacturer focused on producing one particular type of foodstuff. In this environment, there will be very few product changeovers. Instead, it is likely that the product inspection system will be chosen on the grounds of high reliability and minimal maintenance.

However, there are some key production drivers that are common to most production environments, whatever the size of operation. These include:

Uptime: Any unscheduled stoppage will have an impact on the bottom line. For food manufacturers in particular, the consequences of an outage can be severe: resulting in significant loss of product, not just production time. For example, bread dough may not bake properly if the proving process is interrupted, and frozen beef burgers may thaw on a stationery conveyor while an emergency repair is made further down the line. 

Product inspection systems commonly act as critical control points, so it is essential that they function reliably and either meet or exceed production speeds in order to prevent them becoming a production blocker. 

Quality: Whether a manufacturer is working for a retailer or making own-brand products, quality is key. Contributing factors to delivering quality include conformance with any legislative and brand requirements, the ability to produce the same product consistently time after time and the requirement to avoid physical contamination. Failure in any one of these aspects could result in a product recall, which not only represents lost revenue, but also lost reputation. 

Product inspection equipment has its origins in contamination prevention and conformance. As systems become more sophisticated, the ability to collect and analyse vital production data needs to be as simple and transparent as possible.

Cost: Capital cost is only one factor that affects the decision to purchase product inspection equipment. Increasingly, customers are looking at other means of assessing the return on investment. These include operational requirements like energy consumption and maintenance frequency. There is also the issue of staff training. With complex machinery, it can be the case that a few employees understand all the technical intricacies of a piece of equipment. If they leave the business, that knowledge goes with them. 

As production inspection technology evolves, it is more important than ever that it is easy to use and does not require specialist knowledge to operate.

Putting production first
Mettler-Toledo has put these production drivers first when developing its latest range of x-ray inspection systems, with the aim of ensuring that any technological advances are both appropriate and affordable. 

For example, the X34 is a single lane x-ray system designed for the inspection of a range of small and medium-sized packaged products. It provides a combination of technologies which enable producers to detect smaller contaminants reliably at high-throughputs, ensuring product safety and delivering brand protection. 

The system comes with software that enables automated product set-up, decreasing the chance of human error. New products only need to be passed once through the system for the power to be optimised and the software requires minimal passes to automatically set the contamination inspection tools. All the instructions are given via a touchscreen so there is no need for the operator to have any special programming skills. 

To reduce operating costs, the x-ray system has been equipped with a generator which automatically maximises detection sensitivity, and a 0.4mm detector for the accurate detection of very small contaminants. Together these technologies help optimise power and contrast levels for every product, so the system does not always have to run at its full 100W output to achieve the best results. Inspection software further enhances detection capabilities, helping users achieve a zero False Reject Rate (FRR). Overall Equipment Effectiveness scores are increased as a result.

Product inspection equipment has much to offer busy production managers, beyond the basic requirements of contamination detection and compliance. Technological advances are being harnessed to address the key challenges of uptime, quality and cost using automation to eliminate human error, optimise performance and control energy consumption. 

Mike Pipe is a product inspection specialist with Mettler-Toledo.

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