Exposing recent improvements in X-Ray food inspection
X-Ray inspection has some new perks, including technologies such as one-button auto-learning to simplify operation, while plug-and-play replacement modules increase speed repairs.
Looking for a competitive edge, many heavyweight big-box grocery retailers want their packaged food producers to utilize X-Ray for inspection of product.
Like its cousin ‘metal detection’, X-Ray detection is a method used to find contaminants in packaged food products.
X-Ray equipment readily identifies stainless steel—the most common metal used in food processing equipment, and is able to spot nonmetallic objects such as bone, stone, glass and even sugar conglomerates.
X-Ray equipment can even “see” through metalized packaging, and work around other obstacles such as metal retaining clips without degrading the ability to find unwanted foreign objects.
While brand loyalty can be harmed forever if just one foreign particle harms or alarms a consumer and its source gets traced back to the food producer, many food processors have avoided X-Ray equipment for multiple reasons.
Cost is no longer a major issue for processors, as with other technologies compeitition and continual improvements in manufacturing efficiency have dropped the price point of X-Ray inspectors to within
As well, feedback gathered over the years from major food producers points to two big issues that still give some of them pause before choosing X-Ray detection: the perceived difficulty in operating these devices, and; the feeling that factory technicians are required to maintain and repair them.
In light of the newest X-Ray inspection designs, a closer examination of these concerns reveals the fact that these fears are no longer founded.
Shortening the operational learning curve
Traditionally, metal detectors have appealed to food producers because they are easy-to-use and less complicated to maintain and repair than traditional X-Ray machines.
However, any further extrapolation of these assumptions stops at the point where the latest iterations of X-Ray devices come in. With the introduction of new automatic training algorithms, these devices can now be set up quickly and easily.
For example, Novus X-Ray LLC of Blue Bell, PA—a manufacturer of state-of-the-art X-Ray inspection systems—utilizes fully automatic training technology in their X-Ray machines to learn what normal product should looks like under the light of X-Ray energy and reject anything else. This includes undesired contamination such as stainless steel, glass, and stone but can also be used to identify undesirable process variations.
A one-button “auto learning” system, pioneered by Novus X-Ray, allows a technician to visually inspect an X-Ray image that has been falsely detected, and with one button tell the machine to ignore similar detections in the future. No further adjustments, or even knowledge of how the image processing system works is required, making operation completely intuitive.
These advancements in image processing enable X-Ray inspection to run almost on autopilot.
“I have other X-Rays here, but the thing I like about the Novus units is their ability to self-train; a guy that doesn’t even know much about X-Ray can do it,” says Clemens Food Group superintendent of electronics and controls Bob Taylor—a vertically-coordinated company that includes hog farming, food production, logistical services and transportation.
“Our ability to set them up is faster and a lot less frustrating, so it saves a lot of man hours,” Taylor adds.
Maintenance and repair simplified
Food manufacturers traditionally shied away from X-Ray machines because of the belief that they are complicated, requiring factor-trained technicians for service and repair.
In the past, the breakdowns justified the fear of extended production delays while a specialist had to be called in to repair the device.
That was then. Nowadays, the clever modularization of X-Ray construction has made repairing these devices almost as easy as changing a light bulb.
By reason of example, Novus’ CCPX line of packaged food X-Ray machines groups the various components of the system into just five modules: processing-detection; the human-machine-interface; input-output electronics; X-Ray generator; and the cooling system.
To further speed the repair process, embedded software readily identifies which module needs replacement. The worker simply unplugs it from its cabling, unbolts that faulty module, inserts the replacement module, and reconnects the cabling. Any recalibration, mechanical alignment, or settings recovery takes place without worker intervention. Such ability make repair and maintenance a matter of “plug-and-play lowering the knowledge and training bar to levels commonly found in plant maintenance personnel.
This modularization of X-Ray inspection systems means that any necessary repairs can now take place quickly and easily. Access to replacement modules is available on a 24/7 basis from some vendors, while most food production facilities go the extra step to purchase spare modules in advance for on-the-spot replacement. In the time it takes to change a bearing on a conveyor, for instance, the X-Ray critical control point is back up and running again without even calling the factory for parts. The service model changes from factory technicians on-site to mail the defective module back for replacement.
“I have some guys who are specialists on the older X-Ray units and they are very familiar with them; whereas I can send just about anybody out to a Novus unit to calibrate it,” says Taylor.
The newfound ease of operating and repairing today’s X-Ray inspection devices means that a food producer can maintain these machines with their own, existing personnel. Since no special training is required, employee turnover is no longer a problem to ensure that the machine operates at maximum uptime.
“We’re able to maintain the machines on our own, so it makes us very self-sufficient,” adds Taylor.
The best of both worlds
Enabled by new technology, the simplification of operating and maintaining an X-Ray inspection system allows packaged food producers to benefit from all the advantages that X-Ray inspection offers, with the same ease and quick repair that metal detection systems offered.