Bühler UK Ltd has won this year's Queen's Award for Enterprise: Innovation in recognition of its pioneering research into camera technology used in sorting machines. The technological breakthrough is being used to drive up food safety controls in the nut and frozen vegetable sectors while also helping to increase plastic recycling rates.
The Queen's Award for Enterprise is the highest UK award for British businesses who have excelled in the fields of international trade, innovation, or sustainable development. This is the seventh Queen's Award that has been won by Bühler UK since 1968.
This year's achievement is in recognition of Bühler's development of a unique camera technology used in sorting machines, capable of recognizing the subtlest of color and shading contrasts in materials and foods and so significantly increasing detection rates for foreign materials, potential choke hazards or contaminated foods.
The technology is currently being used by food producers in Europe and the United States who are reporting increased detection rates for foreign materials up from 85% to 95%.
The UK-developed technology uses hyperspectral imaging to record vast amounts of wavelength data to generate highly accurate color and shading contrasts for specific products. This data is then statistically analyzed to create algorithms that inform the sorting camera exactly what color and shading contrasts to look for when detecting contamination or a foreign object in a production process.
"The innovation here is our ability to gather such large amounts of data and then use that data to optimize a conventional narrow band digital camera so that it is capable of quickly and efficiently detecting very specific things, whether it is shells in nuts, foreign materials in a vegetable production line or even different grades of polymers in a recycling plant," explains Benedict Deefholts, Senior Research Engineer Bühler UK Ltd.
Over the past four years Bühler has used this technology to produce a range of specialist cameras for different markets. Its BioVision™ camera is targeted at the nut industry, PolarVision™ aimed at producers of frozen vegetable and PolyVision™ designed to improve plastic recycling rates.
One of the criteria for a Queen's Award is that the technology should not just be innovative, but it must also be scalable, commercially viable and to have resulted in a material improvement to a commercial process. Since the introduction of the Sortex E optical sorter using BioVision technology, sales of Bühler sorting solutions into the nut sector have doubled. The technology is now being used by the world's top nut producers globally to detect blemished nuts along with the smallest shell fragments in walnuts, pecans and pistachios.
Similar inroads are being made into the frozen vegetable market thanks to the ability of PolarVision technology to detect even the most challenging foreign material in frozen vegetable production lines. Ardo, one of the world's largest fresh-frozen fruit, vegetable and herb producers, has introduced PolarVision in its European sorting plants.
"In our experience, PolarVision technology is one of the best digital-vision technologies when it comes to detecting FM in the industrial frozen vegetables process. It's a jump forward", said Steven Van Engelandt, Ardo's Group Project Engineer.
"We tested all other options, including laser, chlorophyll, translucency, but PolarVision was unsurpassed and it's becoming standard in all our plants. When we were testing PolarVision, formerly problematic FM such as snails and dark plastic, became visible, and were removed, with an increase in yields, due to a more precise detection of defects."
The Bühler camera technology is also being used to detect foreign material and lower grade or discoloured polymers to ensure the highest grade recyclate can be achieved by plastic recyclers. By detecting such high rates of contamination, it is now possible to produce food grade plastic packaging from 100% recycled material, cutting the need for virgin plastic production and levels of plastic being sent to landfill.
While the technology has so far been applied to detect foreign materials, future developments will also be able to detect mycotoxins and even pathogens.
"We are absolutely delighted to be receiving this ‘seventh' Queen's award. Innovation is at the heart of our business and it's wonderful to see another cutting edge product making a big impact in the market; on food safety, food quality and of course generating commercial success for our customers," says Matthew Kelly, Managing Director of Digital Technologies within the Bühler Group.