Earlier this year, Erwin Bakker, owner of Ellips from Eindhoven, talked about his remarkable software for sorting machines. "In time," he said, "the industry won't be able to do without it. At the moment, sorters are being looked at askance now and then. There are doubts about accuracy. But that is actually increasing. A worker at a packing station can't look inside a product, that has to be done by software."
Erwin seems to be right, because Ellips is still growing impressively. Not only when it comes to interest from the industry, but also in the software's versatility. At the recent PMA summit in American Anaheim, we met Erwin Bakker again. What new developments can he report?
Profile of a kiwifruit
Last time, Erwin mainly talked about onions, but as we know by now, the software from Eindhoven also evaluates the quality of cherries, peaches, tomatoes, asparagus, potatoes and many other products. When we meet him at the exhibition floor, it's about the internal quality of kiwifruit. Both green and yellow ones.
"We evaluate them both," Erwin says. "First we do a rough estimate of the amount of green and yellow kiwis. Such an estimate is actually done because we are able to, after having collected and analysed the data, create a profile for a kiwifruit. Based on those estimates, we can advise the customer on setting up the machine. We have done this before with onions and apples, and it also works great with pomegranates. It's a matter of setting things up at first, but in a matter of weeks you can really fine-tune such a sorter."
So it's about setting up parameters: what is acceptable and what isn't. You actually have to tell a machine what it sees. Those parameters do of course vary per fruit, but also differ from one production region to the next sometimes. So it's a matter of fine-tuning.
"In addition," says Erwin, "we have now established our development process in such a way that the software makes its own correlations. With that I mean that we can enter the data, meaning the variables, after which the software makes a model for you. And we can input that as a profile in the sorter."
So a self-learning machine then? Yes, Erwin says. But this, he says, is an almost indispensable procedure. The alternative, he explains, is getting more and more impossible. "Of one batch, for instance, you're going to measure one hundred fruits. You first have to cut them in half and enter them into an Excel sheet. You then feed that sheet back to the sorter, and based on that it starts sorting the batch. And that again and again! So you're working on that forever. And you have to cut hundreds of them as well." He shakes his head, laughing: "That's quite a task. But with a solid profile, that wouldn't be necessary any more."
Because the kiwi sector is mainly sorting in this fashion, that means, in principle, an entire market is open to Ellips. Erwin argues that certain "by eye" is not only time-consuming, but also less accurate. One expert on the floor, he said, got three out of twenty-five wrong. That's a high margin of error, considering annual revenue.
A few months back, Erwin still had to acknowledge that Ellips was relatively unknown in the fruit and veg sector. "We are still mainly a supplier for fruit and veg," he said. "I can't say for sure there won't be any more ocular quality inspections in a few years, or that potato packing stations won't exist any more. Apart from technology, it's a matter of going to the limit. A worker at a packing station can't look inside a product, that has to be done by software. And when the consumer sets increasingly higher demands, technology will have to keep up."
But now the entrepreneur is already a lot more optimistic on the ground gained in fruit and veg.
I don't think it will be long before everyone has an internal quality machine," he predicts. And he isn't just talking about the need in the workplace. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if retail starts asking for it, for instance. In future, it will only buy a batch of pomegranates if it's been checked internally for quality. Here in America, they've already reached this point. Two years back, they started with the first electronic cherry sorters. Now supermarkets are saying with a straight face: if you don't have an optical sorter, we're not buying your cherries!"
In the US, they're ahead anyway when it comes to that, Erwin says. With the Dutch market still getting acquainted with the idea, America is seeing a fast rise. Only recently, Erwin Bakker's company installed eight sorting lines in Washington State. "As a precaution," Erwin adds. "But they hadn't even placed the equipment when their red onions were hit by interior rot. Thanks to the sorters, the company was still able to ship 4,000 tonnes." The word went round quickly, and several fruit and veg companies have shown interest. Erwin: "America remains an interesting market for us: it's partly uncharted territory, but need is there all the same. Americans also have very different quality standards."
When it comes to technological advancement, Ellips remains optimistic, although Erwin is somewhat cautious. "We will never reach one hundred percent detection," he says. "Nobody can do that. There is always a margin of failure. But we are getting there, and that breeds confidence!"
Eindhoven, The Netherlands
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