Smart Machines & Factories
Smart checkweighers keep food manufacturing losses under control
Published:  11 October, 2021
The global market outlook for automated checkweighing remains strong

Charlie Graham, European Sales Manager at Fortress Technology and Sparc Systems examines the importance of accuracy on the scales and why weight uniformity is so critical, especially in the expanding health and wellness sector.

The rising cost of healthy diets, an ever-growing market in weight management products, hikes in prices for food staples combined with better waste management strategies is encouraging more food production facilities towards precision checkweighing and 100% reliable weight control.

The global market outlook for automated checkweighing remains strong. Industry reports predict further rapid growth, with industry reports suggesting 4.6% CAGR each year between 2019 and 2027. The projected expansion of this sector is likely to be propelled by several factors.

Rising costs

But global food prices are going up. At the start of 2021, they hit a six year high. Having already encountered supply chain disruptions, another surge in prices for essential commodities, ranging from grains to sugar, soybeans to corn is anticipated. It is expected to affect retailer pricing strategies for all types of products, including baked goods, ready meals and even pet food.

Absorbing these additional inflation costs will in time pass down the consumer chain. Brexit and subsequent trade complications already being encountered are likely to add to the woes for British food manufacturers. The Food and Drink Federation has estimated that red tape and new border checks could add £3 billion per year for food importers.

For many manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), these price hikes, squeezes on profit margins, plus the explosion in lifestyle-led single serve and ready-to-go food packs, as well as strict regulatory mandates and productivity driven investments, is swinging the scale towards advanced and accurate precision checkweighing.

Currently, there remains plenty of untapped potential for the utilisation of automation and data collection in all weighing food production processes. Giveaway has been a long-accepted practice in food factories. Many are notorious at overcompensating in the filling phases to avoid falling foul of international and domestic weight legislations.

To ensure food production facilities don’t deviate from set weights for product units, many of today’s checkweighing technologies have refined the process to deliver real time feedback data needed for quality control and interfacing with other machinery to adjust autonomously. Used efficiently, upfront checkweighing machine costs can rapidly provide a return on investment.

Sophisticated software adds full transparency to packing processes tracking each unit weight meets the set parameters as each item passes over the checkweigher. Besides reducing false rejects and product waste, the use of modern network technologies allows for automatic data transmission. With integrated data collection software, everything from trends, pack rates and live OEE data is instantly reported. Production and QA personnel can then utilise the information to monitor and fine-tune production line performance, even prior to the weight check process.

Upstream weighing systems are especially beneficial in bakery and meat processing facilities. For example, Sparc’s automated Hestia Dough Checkweigher can save bakers thousands of pounds every day. Connected to an automated upstream dough dividing line, if a piece of dough is under or overweight by as little as 0.5g, the Hestia Dough Checkweigher automatically rejects it.

Simultaneously, the machine’s advanced software controlled by fibreoptics communicates back to the dough divider in real time to adjust the position of the blade for the next batch. Similarly, if a meat manufacturer finds inconsistencies in the size of meatballs, this provides a clear indicator that processing machinery is not running accurately. Beyond highlighting this fault, precision systems, such as the Raptor checkweigher, provide a controlled feedback signal to upstream automation equipment used to portion food products. This signal specifies when to increase or decrease the fill quantity accordingly, eliminating the need for human intervention.

Deviating from a recipe also affects the value of products, especially where formulation conformity is critical, such as ‘free from’ and ‘dietary’ ranges. Free-from ingredients can cost over 150% more than conventional products - there are often 20 or more ingredients within a free-from bread recipe.

Shrinking pack sizes has been a common practice in recent years to counteract price rises. Manufacturers firmly lay the blame on rising raw material costs for resizing packs. Applied to chocolate bars, coffee, fruit juice, sausages, beers and even chips, the Office of National Statistics found that in just five years, 2,529 product pack sizes were made smaller.

Faced with these pressures, and in an attempt to contain domestic food prices, implementing strict waste control measures and reducing giveaway is now even more acute.

Counting calories

Globally, the weight management market is projected to grow at 8.6% CAGR in the next five years. For this expanding market, weight checking is fundamental to authenticity, product integrity and brand protection. Absolute weighing uniformity in weight management products is non-negotiable. If packaging states a snack bag has 100 calories, the tolerance must not deviate by more than 0.5g. In this market, being bang on the weight target is critical.

It’s why one leading British weight control company selected a special edition of Sparc’s Cerberus Combination Metal Detector and Checkweigher. Capable of checking 350 packs per minute, the Sparc processor achieves a reliable weight accuracy of +/-0.25g. This is well within the e- mark rules.

By optimising the processing electro servo drive, Sparc weight sensors reset rapidly, allowing for instant and precise weight checks of individual packs in real time. Trend feedback is instantly fed upstream to filling, portioning and packing automation equipment. Signalling when to increase or decrease fill quantity. The same processing precision has been applied to the new Raptor checkweighing series

Waste not

The utilisation of automation tools and ‘smart’ inspection and checkweighing machinery helps to ensure waste remains tightly controlled and also maintains food safety and production efficiency.

Most contemporary checkweighers and combination inspection machines are ‘smart’ and connected. This allows immediate and remote access, enabling food manufacturers to view the current equipment status, monitor rejects and maintain continuous, smooth production lines. Operational data can be compared and gives production managers the ‘real time’ data to spot trends and patterns, such as when and where the most rejects are occurring. From a waste

management perspective, this information is critical.

Combination checkweighing and inspection systems bring food factories one step closer to this Smart Factory vision, whereby connected devices work alongside each other to reduce contamination, ensure food safety compliance and boost traceability and efficiency.