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Vision inspection trends

13 June 2022

Food Processing spoke to Jürgen Kress, general manager at Mettler-Toledo Garvens, to find out more about developments in vision inspection and how this might benefit food producers. 

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What are the current inspection trends and what is driving them?
The main trends in inspection technology relate to the adoption of automation and digitalisation. These are partly in response to profound structural issues for food producers, including escalating production costs, dramatic shortages of skilled labour, and supply chain uncertainty. Other factors are also at play – food producers are faced with increasing levels of regulation in the areas of food safety and product labelling. Brand expectations are growing spurred on by powerful tools such as social media that enable consumers to amplify real or perceived poor practice.

Fortunately, advances in technology mean that vision inspection systems and processes can be automated to enhance efficiency, reduce costs and errors, and increase ease of use, making fail-safe inspection of products and labels at manufacturing throughputs economically viable. Such systems and processes also capture digital data that can be used to meet compliance demands, as well as driving additional efficiencies.  

What issues affect the vision inspection market? 
The biggest issue affecting the market today is the lack of skilled personnel and expertise in the industry. This is a symptom of the high margin pressures faced in the food sector, which impact on operator salaries, leading to high staff turnover. However, other contributing factors are Covid-related capacity reductions and the recent phenomenon of large-scale voluntary resignations. Wage stagnation amid rising costs of living, pre-existing job dissatisfaction, safety concerns related to Covid-19, and the desire to work for companies with better remote-working policies, have all been cited as possible reasons for this.
In this context, the increasing automation and digitalisation of vision inspection becomes even more important for food producers.
How do you see vision inspection technology evolving?
We expect the technology to evolve in two, seemingly opposite, directions. 
On the one hand, we will see smart cameras increasingly being used as standalone units and deployed to inspect standard applications for food producers. On the other hand, vision inspection will also move beyond ‘niche applications’ to become integrated with full production line installations, including complementary weight and contamination inspection technologies, with complete digital and statistical control. This latter direction means that product inspection is also evolving from product to package inspection.

Another evolution to be expected is the use of increasingly complex algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) alongside inexpensive camera solutions for inspecting high-end applications, making such inspection capabilities much more cost effective. Currently, however, there has been low take up of AI in this field.   

What barriers might food manufacturers face when looking at adopting vision inspection technology?
Manufacturers today sometimes invest in what they see as more cost-effective vision inspection solutions. However, the cost-effective benefit can often fall away as the food producer runs into issues with integration of the vision inspection equipment with other production and product inspection systems already on the line, as well as finding that, in the longer term, support for, and ongoing development of, their investment becomes a potential problem. 

It is important to achieve the right balance between implementation costs of vision inspection technology and the levels of inspection to detect errors/defects that can be carried out with it. It is also important that technology providers are realistic with food producers about what they can and cannot achieve for a given application. 

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