"Efficiency is a word that comes up repeatedly regarding potato sorting," begins Kees Kelders, responsible for sales at the Austrian company Insort, which focuses on developing customized grading technology for the food processing sector. Jokingly, he cites making two kilograms of French fries from one kilogram of potatoes as his customers' biggest driver. "That's obviously impossible, but in the future, when there's a potato shortage, efficiency will play an increasing role. Many French fries factories are being built, and they can't all be supplied because growers - especially in the Netherlands with its nitrogen issue-related rules - are reaching their limits."
That affects the sorting process, too, sees Kees. One such measure is the October 1 rule, which requires potatoes planted in sandy soils be grubbed by that date on pain of a reduction in the following year's nitrogen user standard. He anticipates that more potatoes that do not meet the dry matter content processors desire will be delivered. "Insort can image these potatoes with hyperspectral analysis, allowing them to be sorted out automatically. That technology lets you grade your potatoes using their chemical composition," he says.
Along with efficiency, cost management is an essential factor in choosing grading technology, says Kees. "That's a huge issue, and puts demands on a grader's functioning." Insort has replaced using air to eject affected potatoes with cylinders. "It's quite expensive and inefficient to generate compressed air," he explains, adding that it is noisy too. "Whereas ejection generated 130 decibels, we're now at around 75 decibels. You'd have to do that in a separate hall, but now the staff can stand next to the machine."
To achieve efficiency and reduce costs, automation is one of the keywords in sorting, and here, artificial intelligence (AI) plays a role. "Its use is the latest technology we see in the grading world. For customers, that has the big advantage of making sorting easier and far more accurate," says Kees, who sees staff shortages in the potato processing industry becoming increasingly important. "With AI, controlling the machines is much easier. We can, thus, set the grader, and the operator doesn't have to do anything."
Technology and data allow helicopter view
That, thus, eliminates the need for personnel at the machine. "With cameras on the incoming product, the rejected product, and post-sorting, we can view the product from the control room or remotely. People no longer have to stand by the machine. There are very few people available to run an entire production line, so they can't be standing by every machine. That requires a helicopter view, which you can achieve using our technology and the data it provides," says Kelders.
Kees notes that those data streams are becoming more and more important, too. "Clients can link the data a grader produces to their information system." He points out that, for example, the grader examines each potato and, besides length-to-width ratio - the French fries processing industry is increasingly sorting by length - size and dry matter content are imaged, as is the proportion of green and brown potatoes and foreign objects. "That data is shared with the information system every other minute," Kees explains. He says you can use these data streams to optimize yields and gain insight into optimal growing conditions such as, say, soil or fertilizer use, especially if the data is tracked for longer.
Major and minor defects
But, crop protection products, or rather, their dwindling availability, play a growing role in sorting, Kees observes. "More diseases are again affecting potatoes. In the grading process, you can see right away when a certain pesticide is no longer being used against, for instance, wireworm. The potatoes immediately have far more holes." Here, too, AI offers Insort a solution. "We can use it to teach the software what wireworm holes look like so the affected potatoes can be rejected." The grading technology distinguishes between major and minor defects. "Severely defective potatoes go directly into the biogas processing stream," he points out. Potatoes with minor flaws, however, are still suitable for consumption. "Those are peeled and return to production, resulting in higher yields."
Though Europe's fries industry is expanding rapidly, Kees expects it to eventually become a replacement market for Insort. Asia, especially China and India, is where the true growth is. "The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany manufacture French fries quite efficiently. I see Asia also joining that battle within the next ten years. There, they're still used to working with people, and although that costs only a few dollars per day, we sell machines to China, for example. Fast food restaurants in Asia want plants to produce French fries staffless to prevent contamination. The efficiency gains we've made with automation are also coming to Asia," Kees concludes.