Can machine vision systems improve detection of product anomalies on production lines?
In the first piece in this ongoing series exploring new technology that can help meet HACCP goals we looked at Google Glass in a warehouse application and saw how the device can insure correct routing as well as verify the products being shipped are correct. This is fine for finished packaged products but what about raw foods on a high speed production line?
Typically human inspectors are assigned to insure that products that do not meet the quality specifications based on size, completeness, color, blemishes, foreign materials, etc. are stationed along production lines in poultry, fruit and vegetable processing facilities and remove or flag products that are marginal or do not meet specifications. Having worked in the optical inspection industry in the past, I can relate to the tedium and difficulty of such a task which is made even more difficult as line speeds increase, and there is always pressure to get more product out more quickly so line speeds do inevitably increase over time. In many cases the boredom or “eyes glazed over” factor increased significantly as the operator’s attention span was tested, meaning it is more likely for out of specification products to be passed on without notice.
The website Food Safety News (Link to Source) recently reported the result of a lengthy study process that led to the recent changes in the USDA poultry inspection rules. While consumer advocate and industry groups have both praise and criticism of the rule changes the outcome is that USDA inspectors will focus more on plant records and procedures than on-line inspector. The 140 bird per minute line speed will remain the same for now. This change puts a more significance on HACCP plans and documentation.
Poultry inspection in a US processing plant. (Link to Source)
Despite years of training and experience, human inspectors can only do so much in terms of finding problems when they have less than a half-second to inspect each bird. A recent announcement was made by Headwall Photonics, a Massachusetts designer and manufacturer of imaging sensors and spectral instrumentation for government and industrial applications. In cooperation with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Headwall licensed technology for patents related to in-line inspection of poultry. According to Headwall, “The patent licensing agreement builds on Headwall’s USDA Commercial Research & Development Agreement (CRADA) that collaboratively focused research activities on the development and introduction of in-line inspection sensors utilizing spectral imaging technology for food inspection.” (Link to Source)
Headwall will employ it’s HYPERSPEC Inspector which is described as follows: “The speed and precision of hyperspectral imaging is unmatched. Use it to spot foreign material, disease conditions, rot, fecal matter, and more. The use of user-defined spectral algorithms allow you to discriminate precisely.” (Link to Source) The device can be configured in several various spectral ranges which allows it to be fine tuned to look for unsafe areas in wavelengths humans may not be able to see, just as bees can see their favorite flowers in different wavelengths to help them in their search.
Headwall Photonics’ HYPERSPEC Inspector (Left) can view items in multiple wavelengths potentially enabling them to “see” flaws, foreign materials and defects more easily, similar to how honey bees “see” ultraviolet “colors” beyond human capabilities. (Right, Link to Source)
Employing this and other automated inspection technology can enable food processors insure that products are safe while automatically producing HACCP documentation that inspectors will appreciate. With the change in the USDA’s poultry inspection rules as well as increased speeds on lines in produce processing plants, automated inspection devices and systems coupled with today’s high speed, tablet computer and smart mobile devices have the ability to make significant impact on improving inspection and documentation for many food processing and service companies. Management will and budgets to adopt such systems will be required, but the more robust and ubiquitous they become the more the need will increase. The question is which companies will be early adopters and take advantage of the PR and marketing opportunity that will be available while the real-world RoI is determined.
Whether USDA inspectors perform hands-on inspections or review procedure and production documentation will have a positive effect on reducing food safety incidents, company employees entrusted to perform the HACCP procedures and document them appropriately will ultimately be the lynchpin of any system. Automated inspection at the producer level can be one more tool to help insure food safety. Worker dedication to ensuring problems are not shipped to customers is the best defense regardless of whether or not intelligent machines assist in their work.
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