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Reducing costs with product inspection technologies

28 November 2022

Rob Rogers outlines the ways that modern product inspection technology can help beat production cost increases. 

Euromonitor International, has predicted that global inflation will reach 7.9% in 2022 and forecasts a lesser but still significant 5% in 2023. To put these figures into some perspective, the average annual global inflation rate in the period 2001 to 2019 was 3.8%.

So, it is important to keep a tight rein on manufacturing costs and find ways to reduce them where possible. Shopping around for cheaper energy or raw material deals may be difficult. Ideally, food manufacturers need a solution that helps them battle rising costs while also improving production efficiency and compliance.   

The answer comes in product inspection. Whether new investments are needed, or simply a new appreciation of the capabilities of existing machines, there are many ways that product inspection technologies such as x-ray, metal detection, checkweighing and vision inspection can help food manufacturers reduce costs and operate more productively and profitably.

Tackle product giveaway: Product giveaway can be a hidden cost – even a small overfill can add significant wasted resources when multiplied across many thousands of products. Deliberate overfilling, to avoid the dangers of fines from underfilling, are giving away not just product but profitability. Consistent fill level control is therefore critical. Checkweighing is the most effective inspection technology for reducing product giveaway. The latest load cells within a checkweigher provide precision measurements, while advanced software links between the checkweigher and filling systems enable manufacturers to set fill levels, monitor them and correct them when needed. This gives them control and minimises the risk of either overfill or underfill. 

X-ray can also play a part in reducing product giveaway. The greyscale images generated by x-ray inspection can ensure that the right number of product components are included in each pack, and that product volume – for example, a stack of potato chips – within the pack comes to the right level. By measuring the mass of the product and its packaging and comparing that measurement to a known correct value, it can also identify discrepancies that would suggest over- or underfill.

Reduce false rejects: Wasted product caused by metal detectors falsely identifying contaminants is a significant issue in some applications. False rejects can be triggered by factors around the operating environment, the product being inspected and/or the metal detector itself. For some applications, the phenomenon of product effect is particularly prominent. This occurs where certain characteristics of a product, notably high salt, moisture and temperature variation, trigger a signal that the metal detector interprets incorrectly as a contaminant. 

The answer is provided by new generations of metal detectors that offer enhanced detection sensitivity performance, optimised via advanced software algorithms. A particular technological advance has been that of Multi-Simultaneous Frequency (MSF) metal detectors, which operate at more than one frequency simultaneously, enabling them to meet the challenge of product effect in an innovative way. Built-in product signal suppression technology can also help to cancel out the product effect signal, improving the detection of real contaminants, while also reducing false reject rates, and therefore wasted product. 

Modern x-ray inspection software reduces false reject rates through automating set-up procedures and establishing optimum detection sensitivity levels. This enables the x-ray system to reject substandard products, as specified by a brand's requirements. Food manufacturers can be confident that their profits are protected by avoiding unnecessary waste and downtime. 

Avoid unnecessary waste: Carrying out inspection of products early in the production process can avoid incurring unnecessary waste. This is because they can detect a contaminant in a product or ingredient before it reaches added value processes up to and including packaging. Both x-ray and metal detection can play a useful role here, helping to ensure that only good or safe ingredients go forward for completion. 

Test less frequently, without impairing performance: Testing of product inspection equipment is important in making sure that the inspection technology is working optimally. It is also unavoidable that system testing incurs production downtime.

A good solution comes in the form of a Reduced Test Mode which works by constantly monitoring performance to make sure that the metal detector is working to the required specification. This allows for a reduction in the frequency of scheduled tests.   

Make routine monitoring tests quicker: Alongside the frequency of inspection equipment testing, the duration of each test also has an impact on production line downtime. With modern product inspection systems, manufacturers can  automate testing procedures, cutting the time required for testing with manual processes, and freeing operators to concentrate on other, more value-adding duties. 

Reduce manual record-keeping: Data has become an essential resource for many businesses, and food manufacturers can gain significant production improvements by embracing digitisation. This means adopting systems that allow for the automatic collection and storage of data. Modern product inspection machines generate a constant stream of data, and by bringing this into specialist data management software tools enables users to harness a wealth of information to improve production efficiency. This would be virtually impossible to do with manual record-keeping, since the constant monitoring, gathering and analysing of such volumes of data would be far too labour-intensive. 

Be more energy efficient: Energy efficiency of a system should be a top consideration. For example, there are x-ray systems available that use around one-fifth of the energy of other systems. In a manufacturing plant running 300 days per year, a single x-ray machine could use something like 5 kWh less per day, or 1.5MWh per year. 

Increase automation of quality checks instead of manual processes: The replacement of manual processes with automation is a key aspect of digital transformation. In product inspection it can come in many forms, but the main aim is to improve productivity and therefore profitability. One example is x-ray inspection, which enables multiple quality checks to be performed using one technology. It is possible to check for missing components, seal integrity, mass measurement and fill level, helping to minimise the risk of recalls, and enable re-working of products before further value is added. 

Another option is replacing a static scale used for manual spot checks with a dynamic checkweigher, enabling 100% of products to be checked in-line.

Vision inspection is another production line stage where automation shows its worth. Smart camera systems and software processing enable the automatic inspection of labels and packaging at production speeds. This helps ensure that serialisation codes, allergen and ingredients information and label placement are all present and correct. This would be deeply labour-intensive, if not impossible, to carry out manually. 

Explore greater efficiencies in product changeovers: Combination systems can also offer benefits in terms of reducing the time required for product changeovers. The changeover can be set in motion for more than one inspection process through a single user interface, and different product profiles can be saved in the system for easy recall. Just a few clicks can set the operation in motion.

As we have seen, product inspection delivers many different possibilities for food manufacturers to reduce their costs. There is an additional dimension to consider here though: many of the factors listed above can have an impact beyond simple cost reduction; they can also benefit other aspects of manufacturing operation such as production efficiency, product quality, compliance, and supply chain transparency. Therefore, the aim of beating inflation can also improve almost every aspect of food manufacturing best practice – something that every food manufacturer should keep in mind.     

Rob Rogers is senior advisor for Food Safety & Regulation at Mettler-Toledo.

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