Suzanne Callander reports on how inspection technology has advanced in recent years to ensure that keeps pace with modern packaging systems. If your inspection solution is the weak link in your production line, read on… 

One of the issues facing confectionery manufacturers in recent times has been the fact that product inspection system advances have not been keeping pace with the rapidly increasing productivity being offered with modern packaging systems such as high-speed flow-wrapping machines and pack sealers.  

Ultimately, a production line can only ever run as quickly as its slowest component and this has led to considerable R&D effort by product inspection machinery suppliers. The result of this development work is now available for confectionery producers in the form of the latest generation of inspection systems such as metal detection systems designed specifically for accurate detection at high speeds of ferrous and non-ferrous metals in addition to stainless-steel contaminants which may come from the production line itself. There are also metal detectors on the market now which have been developed specifically for the inspection of small, individually packaged products, including spherical products, at high speed – so are well-suited for use in confectionery inspection applications. 

“In addition to the welcome boost to production capacity and detection sensitivity that these high-performance systems can deliver for confectionery manufacturers, further improvements in built-in rejection systems can also reduce waste in the process,” says Juergen Kress, General Manager for Checkweighing and Vision Inspection at Mettler-Toledo Product Inspection. “Operating at the same speed as the inspection machine, the use of such mechanisms means that single confectionery bars can be rejected at the point a contaminant is detected, instead of entire multi-packs having to be rejected later in the packaging line.”  

Juergen went on to point out another important factor that makes these high-speed inspection systems attractive to the confectionery market – many now have a compact footprint, enabling them to be fitted into the limited space that is a reality on many confectionery production lines. “Combination inspection systems – for example a checkweigher and an x-ray or metal detection system within a single frame – are proving increasingly popular for this reason,” he says. “Modular inspection systems can also help in this regard, being able to meet immediate and future business needs as a confectioner grows and its applications and production capabilities evolve. Such modularity extends to conveyor systems too, with extended belt lengths and options for different reject devices often now being possible.” 

“Surely there could be nothing worse than a child opening a door on their advent calendar and finding no chocolate treat!”

A combined solution has been employed by US-based confectionery company, Lake Champlain Chocolates, which produces gourmet chocolates that require the highest standards in product inspection. It uses a combination checkweigher and metal detector on its chocolate bar line, inspecting at a rate of 126 bars per minute  – the machine can run at up to 200 bars per minute – before the products are wrapped in foil and then glued paper.  

There are also multiple batch changes required evert day, and the ability to save job settings for push-button set up, as well as easy machine access for full washdown, are both important. 

The combination system is also customised, with two extra spacing conveyors ensuring that only one chocolate bar is on the checkweigher at a time, while the high running speed influenced the addition of guide rails on the conveyors, to keep the bars oriented.       

Juergen then highlights developments in a different area of product inspection which could also be of interest to confectionery producers – the latest breakthroughs in vision inspection technology. “Today confectioners can invest in systems equipped with automatically-adjusted smart cameras, allowing for quicker job set-up, and enabling a complete 360o picture of each product to be captured. Using this technology makes it possible to read labels, codes and product information on any part of a product, which is a great benefit for companies challenged to comply with regulations such as the EU Labelling Directive,” he explains.

All about x-rays

Quality control is an integral part of any food production line, enabling plants to deliver the standard that customers and consumers expect, while allowing for accurate portion control.  

Confectionery processers have, traditionally, faced some unique challenges in their bid to ensure consistent product quality. Requirements include mixing product configurations to precisely the right quantities, while minimising damage and maintaining consistency of presentation.  

According to Mark James, General Manager of Sales at Yamato Scale Dataweigh UK, a more recent challenge facing confectioners is inflation, which is resulting in mounting costs across the industry and which also highlights the importance of ensuring that products are not unnecessarily wasted. “Today, finding an effective inspection method that offers a rapid return on investment (ROI) is essential for confectionery manufacturers,” he says. 

Mark believes that x-ray inspection is the answer to a confectioner’s prayers. He adds: “X-ray is the leading form of product inspection available on the market today, safeguarding products against a broad range of potential contaminants. More specifically for the confectionery sector, it can identify flaws in output, including damaged products or produce clumps.” 

Mark also says x-ray is also incredibly useful for reviewing product presentation. “X-rays can detect issues within boxes and bags, allowing confectioners to check that the product sits in the packaging as intended or highlighting faults such as broken seals or uneven distribution of ingredients. This is particularly crucial when creating ‘luxury’ products such as boxed chocolates where presentation is particularly important.” 

Although x-ray technology has proven results, the most significant barrier to its uptake is typically the investment required so it is important to understand the benefits that the technology can offer and the positive outcomes that it can have on in-plant cost management. Mark explains the financial implications of x-ray: “With the capacity to identify a wide range of problems, x-ray can offer incredible returns for your money. When used effectively, it will drastically reduce waste by allowing you to rectify and avoid issues earlier,” he says. 

X-ray technology can also offer benefits throughout the production process, enabling confectioners to ensure a precise mix of ingredients and helping ensure accurate portion control. “Add in the reduced risk of product recalls, customer complaints and lost sales, and the financial rewards are obvious,” concludes Mark. 
Mark Clifford - New Business Manager – UK & Ireland at Minebea Intec, has seen an increase in the number of confectionery producers adopting x-ray technology in recent years – in part due to the increasing use of foil in packaging, in addition to the fact that x-ray systems are able to detect much more than just metal. “They can also see stone, glass and other dense particles,” says Mark. “X-ray is able to undertake other quality checks too – such as highlighting missing or incomplete product. It can also see and detect any missing internal components of a product. 
“We have one customer making advent calendars and the primary role of the x-ray in this application is to look out for missing components. Surely there could be nothing worse than a child opening a door on their advent calendar and finding no chocolate treat!”  

Technology adoption 

It would appear that X-ray technology has come on in leaps and bounds in the past ten years. Today’s systems are no longer complicated to use and running costs and energy usage is now much lower than with outdated systems. In addition, the latest generation of x-ray solutions can offer lots of additional benefits that can be useful in confectionery inspection – applications such as auto product learn, which can help increase productivity by speeding up changeover times. 

If nothing else, surely the thought of an empty advent calendar is enough to spur you into action to take a closer look at today’s product inspection solutions and bring your inspection operations up to speed. 


Sort it out with pick & place robots  

The diverse variety of products and fast-changing packaging formats make the confectionery sector one of the fastest-moving and consumer-driven markets on the planet. Pick & place robot technology can help confectioners address the challenges that this places on them. 

Indeed, according to Mark Stepney, Managing Director at Schubert UK automating sorting and packaging operations represents the quintessential solution. He says: “It is the only way that confectionery manufacturers can achieve profitable packaging performance whilst meeting the ever-increasing demand for diverse product ranges, such as mixed packs and changing packaging formats. Robotic pick & place systems can easily switch, for example, between plastic and cardboard trays, whilst handling a wide range of products and formats. 

“Schubert is well aware that, especially in the confectionery sector, only high-quality, flawless goods can be delivered to the customer and this can be achieved through the use of integrated image processing technology which is available on today’s robotic pick & place solutions. Schubert, for example, offers a system that can detect the position and shape of the products on the belt and assess quality, to ensure that only flawless products are approved for packaging.”  

Everything about modern pick & place technology is designed to ensure flexibility, ease of operation and simple programming. Robotic end-effectors – some of which can now be produced using 3D printing – enable rapid format changeovers usually taking just a few simple steps. Some of today’s solutions require only a single control unit which can perform numerous tasks independently – for example, collision monitoring of the robot arms or workspace monitoring. 

Editorial Contact:
Editor: Kiran Grewal