How today's sizing and packaging solutions help blueberry processing plants become more competitive

The changes in the blueberry industry are posing new challenges to the companies that process this product. Currently they are subject to greater demands for improvement in both quantity and quality, but there are also solutions that allow both to be achieved. Joshua Miers-Jones, Blueberry Category Manager at TOMRA Food, explains.

We are in a time of change for companies dedicated to blueberries, since the global demand for this product is increasing and production is also growing. New producing regions are gaining strength in the market and consumer quality expectations are also increasing. All these changes imply that blueberry producers and processing plants must begin to be more productive and efficient than they have been until today.

Specifically, the demand for fresh blueberries has increased by more than 100% in the last ten years and forecasts indicate that it will continue to grow at an annual rate of 7%. One reason for this tremendous growth is the growing popularity of healthy products in many countries around the world. Another is that blueberries are no longer a seasonal product and are now available throughout the year. 

This change was totally unimaginable when an American blueberry farm began planting wild blueberries in New Jersey in 1908, and commercialized them eight years later. After these modest beginnings, North America became the largest producing region in the world, although other types of blueberries are now grown commercially and there are more large producing countries competing in the market. Thus, since 2010, the number of countries that produce more than 10.000 tons of blueberries per year has increased from 4 to 11. The US continues to be the largest producer in the world, followed by Canada; however, China will soon become the country with the largest blueberry production for domestic consumption.

Sales in the domestic market are only part of the market for this fruit. What is driving sales are exports, largely because its production is expanding throughout the southern hemisphere. Currently, Peru is the largest exporter (and third largest producer) of blueberries, followed by Chile and Mexico, leaving the US in fourth position. This production in both hemispheres allows for blueberries throughout the year. 

Quantity and quality demand 

Today, with product availability throughout the year, it must be taken into account that consumers are beginning to be more demanding in terms of product quality. Many people are already searching for their preferred brand or country of origin and refuse to buy brands with which they have not had a good experience. In this way we can affirm that blueberries are not just a product. The shops sell a “culinary experience”, and it is the producers and the processing plants that must offer products that meet the expectations of their clients.

In the search for a higher quality fruit, significant investments are being made in R&D. Food science is making it possible to achieve larger, firmer, sweeter and more flavorful blueberries. The "holy grail" of the fruit is sought: blueberries with a longer shelf life, so that they reach their destination in perfect condition even though weeks have passed since they were shipped.

Quantity and quality are objectives that, until now, went in opposite directions. Higher production at the packing house used to lead to a drop in quality. And conversely, higher quality meant slower sorting and calibration speeds and thus lower performance. This dichotomy has disappeared today, and technology is responsible for this achievement. Thus, today's state-of-the-art grading, sizing and packaging solutions can boost the efficiency of process plants by making it possible to achieve quality while handling large volumes.

TOMRA Food is a world leader in the design and manufacture of optical sorting, grading and calibration machines for the food industry. It is also the only supplier of integrated blueberry lines, which has solutions for all varieties of the fruit, whether for fresh or frozen product. For this, it offers a wide range of automatic equipment from line feeding, selection and optical calibration of the fruits and automatic packaging systems, delivering the finished product inside the boxes ready to be palletized.

In addition to the classification by size, color, hardness, bruises, phenological state, dehydration, bunch, peeling and marks on the fruits, TOMRA is the only company that has an artificial intelligence system that improves the precision in the detection of defects. in the different varieties of blueberries.

TOMRA blueberry solutions are modular and scalable. This makes them perfect for any requirement and size of company, from SMEs or family businesses, to large multinationals. And, being modular and scalable solutions, these can grow along with customer requirements.

Innovation through R&D 

One of the reasons for the leadership of TOMRA Food solutions is the company's culture of innovation and its serious commitment to R&D. The company has its own "Science of Fruit" program, run by the company's R&D center in Waikato (New Zealand), equipped with an experimental production center, a cold storage area, a full test simulation facility, a technical center and several scientific testing laboratories.

Another reason for its leadership in blueberry solutions is undoubtedly the acquisition of BBC Technologies by TOMRA Food, which arose when New Zealand blueberry growers invented a calibrator-classifier that they began to market and sell to other growers. As a result of this development, the company has unrivaled expertise in high-precision grading and grading systems, as well as clamshell and punnet filling solutions for blueberries and other fruits. 

Finally, we can highlight that the company has been working side by side with clients in the sector for more than 20 years. As a result, TOMRA engineers have gained a deep understanding of the operational challenges of process plants. This professional relationship has been further enhanced by the fact that TOMRA Food is a direct supplier, without intermediaries that disrupt the information process of the processing plants, slow down their development or make their products or services more expensive.

What was impossible, is already reality 

The KATO 260 is a high-precision selection, classification and calibration system that, given its characteristics, makes it the market leader. It is a compact system, to minimize the need for space and the linear meters that each fruit travels. It is designed to treat the fruit with the utmost care, maximizing bloom retention and product shelf life. This versatile system is perfect for classifying any type of fruit by size and eliminating fruit with defects. The KATO 260 features 5 or 7 outlets for smooth sorting in packinghouses of all sizes.

An automatic tray dumper deposits the fruit carefully into the KATO 260, ensuring a stable supply and even distribution of the blueberries in the sorter, optimizing processing capacity. The KATO 260's unique roller system then separates and rotates the blueberries in 360° to facilitate the total inspection of its surface. A series of cameras capture multiple images of each fruit. To provide accurate calibration, the of the machine is capable of detecting defects as small as 0,2 mm. This solution thus achieves high protection of product quality. But that's not all. This advantage is complemented by the high capacity of the KATO 260 that manages to classify large amounts of product with speeds of up to 280 or 572 blueberries per second. 

A valuable add-on to the KATO 260 is its artificial intelligence module called LUCAi, which uses artificial intelligence to classify and grade fruit with extreme precision. As they pass through the calibration line, a series of cameras capture images of the fruits and LUCAi compares the visualized structures with its database of 250.000 fruits to, according to the configured parameters, classify each one with maximum precision. LUCAi is capable of processing up to 2.400 images per second. And also see the fruit in different wavelengths, something imperceptible to the human eye. This allows you to detect subtle defects such as dehydration, bruises and the phenological state of each fruit.

Another notable innovation from TOMRA is the KETE16. This robotic packaging technology, launched earlier this year, is versatile and offers high capacity. It installs at the end of the line, automates the clamshelling process, and adapts to clamshell size, box size, and pack orientation, making changeovers from pack to pack a breeze. There is no other packaging solution capable of accommodating such a wide variety of package designs at such high speeds. Being able to automatically place clamshells or other types of packaging in boxes has multiple and very valuable advantages. Operators can stop dealing with the packing area. This makes a point of contact between line operators and the product disappear from the process. It also makes it possible to offer consistent products without affecting the speed of the process to achieve this. The KETE16 also has the advantage of being able to work with clamshells without the risk of opening.

The KETE16 is easily adjusted to match the speed and capacity of the CURO-16 baling system, which is the fastest weight-based fill option on the market today. The CURO-16 has 16 filling points. Therefore, it is capable of handling up to 200 clamshells of 128 grams of fruit per minute. The minimum unevenness and the few transitions of the classification line guarantee careful handling of the fruit at the time of packing.

In its versatility of filling options, TOMRA Food also offers the CURO-8 system, which has 8 filling points and has been designed for process lines that require filling clamshells of different formats at the same time. The CURO-8 is capable of handling 110 clamshells per minute. By reducing human handling errors and fruit waste, all these machines increase productivity and can simultaneously make clamshells for different markets. 

By adopting these solutions, blueberry packinghouses can handle larger amounts of product without sacrificing quality. In addition, they optimize your operational efficiency and improve your profitability. For all these reasons, there are more than 2.400 lines of KATO 260 optical sorters in operation throughout the world, a number that increases every month. And it is that, despite the enormous competition, those who invest in the best teams can look to the future with peace of mind.

TOMRA Food

TOMRA Food designs and manufactures sensor-based sorting machines and integrated post-harvest solutions that transform global food production to maximize food security and minimize food waste, ensuring “Every Resource Counts.” These solutions include advanced grading, sorting, peeling and analytical technology that help improve profitability and achieve greater operational efficiencies, and ensure a safe food supply.

The company has more than 12.800 units installed worldwide in producers, packers and processors of confectionery, fruit, dried fruit, grains and seeds, potatoes, proteins, nuts and vegetables.

TOMRA Food has centers of excellence, regional offices and manufacturing facilities in the US, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and Australasia.

Follow TOMRA Food on Facebook (TOMRA.Food), Twitter (TOMRAFod) Instagram (TOMRAFod) and LinkedIn (TOMRA Food). 

TOMRA Food is part of the TOMRA Group, a company founded in 1972 based on an innovative idea that began with the design, production and sale of Deposit Return Machines (DRM) for the automated collection of used beverage containers. 

Today, TOMRA is leading the resource revolution to transform the way the planet's resources are sourced, harnessed and reused for a world without waste. The rest of the company's businesses are TOMRA Recycling, TOMRA Mining and TOMRA Collection. 

TOMRA today has some 100.000 installations in more than 80 markets globally and its total revenue in 2021 reached NOK 10.900 billion. The group has around 4600 employees globally and is listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange. The company's headquarters are located in Asker, Norway.

For more, please visit tomra.com.

 

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