How seed and grain processors can profit from the latest sorting technologies

To profit from increasing global demand for seeds and grains, it is necessary for manufacturers to overcome operational challenges. TOMRA identifies these challenges through looking at the technologies available to solve them, and explains how they can open doors to new business.

Big opportunities

One main reason for the booming popularity of seeds and grain – wherein experts forecasting rising sales for years to come – is income growth in highly-populated developing nations. Already observed are seismic shifts in global consumerism due to economic growth in the most populous nation, China. A recent study of 130 nations by economic analysts FocusEconomics concluded that the world’s fastest-growing economy in the next five years will be India, the second most populous country.

Another reason is the trend for healthy foods, particularly in developed nations. Shoppers are increasingly looking for ‘clean-label’ products containing natural and nutritious ingredients, meaning that seeds and grains are being added to more foods than ever before. The best-selling examples of this are bread, bakery goods, and snack bars – all produced and consumed in vast quantities.

Market researchers forecast that in the next five years, or possibly longer, the seed market will expand in annual value at a CAGR of 6-8%, rising from US$63bn in 2020 to $85-90bn in 2025. In the same period, the grain market is expected to expand at a CAGR of about 6%, from $1,150bn to $1,556bn.

Furthermore, grains include coffee beans, the source of one of the most widely-consumed drinks on the planet. Coffee prices reached new record highs in fall 2021, according to the World Coffee Organization. Though crop prices fluctuate due to weather conditions and variable yields, global demand is increasing. Over the next five years, the annual value of the coffee bean market is expected to increase from $27bn at a CAGR of 6.7%. Much of this growth is driven by rising demand for coffee capsules for home consumption and the opening of new franchise outlets such as CCD and Starbucks in many nations worldwide – including China and India.

Processing challenges

The key challenge facing processors is that new sales conquests are most likely to be made in export markets where product imperfections are not tolerated. It is thus important for processing lines to detect and eject foreign materials, defective products, cross-contaminated products, and products contaminated with mycotoxins. One mycotoxin, aflatoxin, is a real concern: this naturally-occurring poison can contaminate corn kernels intended for use in foods for human consumption and for pets, and yet is extremely difficult to detect.

Another challenge is that supply lags behind demand for many types of seeds and grains, but it can take years to plant more crops or enhance crop yields. This means processors must be effective at reducing food waste. Outdated sorting methods that discard large amounts of good product when rejecting bad products are unacceptable. Moverover, rejecting too much good-in-bad is costly.

Yet another challenge that will become more widespread is the emergence of genetically modified (GM) crops. Though the sale of GM foods will become more common, they are unlikely to be welcomed by all consumers and may even be restricted or banned by some food regulators. Thus, preventing non-GM foods from becoming cross-contaminated with GM foods will be essential for processors. Cross-contamination that result in products containing unintended ingredients, such as soy, which are allergens, must also be prevented.

Reasons for optimism

All these challenges can be met by modern optical sorting machines. TOMRA Food offers a wide range of sorting solutions with various levels of sophistication to perform tasks of varying complexity. These machines are calibrated for specific food applications and highly effective for many types of seed and grain. TOMRA machines are currently in operation around the world, sorting seed and feed corn, dry beans, lentils, etc.

TOMRA’s sorters also deliver other benefits. These machines can grade to specification, increase removal efficiency, minimise false rejects, reduce or eliminate the need for manual intervention, and reduce or eliminate dependence on manual labour. The last point is especially important in developing nations that rely on manual processing, which can be imperfect and subject to human error. Meanwhile, automated sorters can work for hour after hour with accuracy, consistency, and efficiency.

Additionally, TOMRA’s machines are designed to be easy to keep clean, improve food hygiene, and be easily maintained, reducing line downtime. Since TOMRA’s machine platforms are equipped with optimally-located optical sensors, sorting performance remains stable even in when working conditions are dusty or subject to temperature extremes. Users find little or no degradation in sorting performance from the beginning of a shift to the end.

Wide-ranging sorting solutions

TOMRA’s sorters can inspect materials passing along the processing line according to their shape, colour, structure, and biological characteristics. The capabilities a machine possesses depends upon its technical specification, which incorporate one or more ways of detection: x-ray, high-resolution cameras, lasers, near-infrared (NIR) optical sensors, and TOMRA’s Biometric Signature Identification technology. 

A variety of TOMRA machines are best-suited to seeds and grains: the Ixus Bulk, Zea, TOMRA 3C, and Nimbus BSI+, depending on the specific requirements.

The Ixus Bulk employs the latest x-ray and imaging technology to detect high-density foreign materials such as metal, stones, glass, and plastics.

The Zea, developed specifically for the seed corn industry, is an affordable sensor-based machine for sorting and grading ear corn husk, defects, disease, and size.

The TOMRA 3C combines high-resolution cameras with LED lighting plus laser or NIR units to remove foreign materials and product defects. This affordable and compact machine needs very little floor space utilises the TOMRA ACT user interface. By pouring infeed materials into a hopper, the feed falls onto a vibration plate and is spread evenly on an infeed chute. The materials then fall further into a detection area, where they are inspected by a dual laser and double-sided high-resolution cameras. In a matter of milliseconds, the intelligent inspection system rejects all defects. The acceptable product continues through the accept chute while the flaws are diverted via the reject chute.        

The TOMRA 3C’s technologies has numerous advantages: the dual laser-induced scattering removes glass and foreign material; the double-sided RGB cameras, combined with high intensity LED lighting, remove small colour and shape defects; the high-speed ejection valve results in a very low rate of false rejects; intelligent auto-cleaning sustains the machine’s optimum performance; and the control interface, with a large touch screen showing application-specific tuning parameters, is easy for operators to use.

The Nimbus BSI+ combines lasers with NIR, visible spectroscopy, and TOMRA’s patented BSI+ scanner, detecting objects’ biometric characteristics and acting a free-fall machine. A feed shaker or hopper spreads the product over the free-fall chute uniformly; after the product falls down to the inspection zone, it is scanned by cameras, lasers or BSI+, or a combination of these. A few milliseconds after the assessment is made, the defects are hit with a burst of air which sends them into the rejection zone while the good product continues its natural free-fall.

The Nimbus’s technologies detect a broader spectrum than other machines, making more accurate decisions about the acceptability and grading of materials on the line. When equipped with the BSI+ scanner, the Nimbus is capable of detecting both colour and chemical composition in the same pass, and removing unwanted materials and product defects undetected by other sorters. When equipped with the Detox laser module, the Nimbus can also detect the aflatoxin.

One of the businesses using the Nimbus BSI+ is Legumbres Selectas Sierra Nevada, a Spanish enterprise specialising in pulses.

Vicente Jiménez Blanes, CEO for Legumbres Selectas Sierra Nevada, said: “When I first saw this machine in operation, I knew it was exceptional, but I never imagined what it was capable of. The results are amazing: 99.9% product purity, and we have gone from processing 500kg per hour to a total installed capacity of 5,000kg per hour. The leap has been spectacular – installing the two Nimbus BSI+ machines is the best thing we’ve done in our company’s 57-year history.”

Another user of the TOMRA 3C and IXUS is Termont & Thomaes, a Dutch company which has been specialising in the sale of legumes, grains and seeds for more than 100 years.

Ettienne Notschaele, process operator at Termont & Thomaes’ plant in the town of Biervliet, commented: “With TOMRA’s machines, product quality and process quantities both increase. The result of using the TOMRA 3C and the IXUS is lower yield-loss and happier customers. We are also very happy with the guidance and help we get from TOMRA, whose team really put their heads together to come up with solutions which help us progress.”

Test and demonstration centres

TOMRA provides on-site training for customers and  technical professionals are accessible via a helpline. With the recently-launched smartphone app, TOMRA Visual Assist, TOMRA field service engineers and customers can work closely together regardless of distance. The engineer can provide detailed advice as if present, and both the engineer and the customer can share documents or annotate images to clarify and explain directions.

Before getting to this stage, food producers can try-out TOMRA’s machines with their own infeed materials at TOMRA’s nearest test and demonstration centres. There are eight demo centres around the world in California, Chile, Belgium, Turkey, China, India, Japan and Ireland.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, TOMRA also offers online demonstration centres, conducted via a live video link where viewers are encouraged to ask questions, make requests, and direct one of the cameras showing the proceedings. After the test’s conclusion, observers are provided with a video and detailed report.

Altogether, these demonstrations allow customers to be certain of a machine’s capabilities and suitability before deciding to invest in the technology.

This article was first published in the February/March 2022 issue of Food & Beverage Asia