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Brussels sprouts manufacturer turns over a new leaf with a digital sorter

As one of the largest vegetable processors in the United Kingdom, T H Clements has achieved double-digit growth over the last several years. The third-generation family company, which harvests, processes and distributes a range of vegetables, including broccoli, kale and cabbage, attributes its success to its focus on freshness and speed to shelf. To ensure it can continue to deliver fresh produce to U.K. retailers in a timely manner, T H Clements invests in equipment that improves efficiency. It installed a digital sorting system on its new Brussels sprouts grading line that has maximized capacity and yield without compromising product quality.

In 2017, T H Clements replaced three sorters with one VERYX B175 digital sorter from Key Technology. The processor says it upgraded to the VERYX because the digital sorter adeptly addresses the unique challenges of sorting Brussels sprouts. “Brussels sprouts are difficult for most sorters,” says Graham Neal, factory manager at T H Clements. “They cast shadows with their deep shape and open leaves when illuminated.” 

Sprouting efficiency

After T H Clements harvests and cleans its Brussels sprouts, mechanical graders remove sprouts that are smaller than 20 mm and larger than 40 mm as well as some foreign material and extraneous vegetative matter. The remaining Brussels sprouts then move to the VERYX infeed where the Key Technology Iso-Flo vibratory conveyor with a customized bar screen removes more foreign materials and extraneous vegetative matter, as well as loose leaves and small pieces of debris. It also singulates and spreads the sprouts for optimal presentation to the sorter’s inspection zone. Compatibility between the infeed and sorter is essential to maximizing sorting performance.

“About 90 percent of all foreign materials and extraneous vegetative matter is removed before the digital sorting system, and then the vibratory infeed shaker that’s integrated with our VERYX removes even more. That means about 98 percent of the product going into the sorter is sprouts, which helps maximize its capacity and yield,” Neal explains. “Since most foreign materials and extraneous vegetative matter is removed with the mechanical processes upstream, we’ve programmed our VERYX to focus on rejecting sprouts with disease and rot, as well as pest damage, yellow leaves and other defects but it’s capable of finding and ejecting much more.”

The VERYX inspects about 12.5 metric tons (27,500 lbs) of Brussels sprouts per hour. To eliminate blind spots Brussels sprouts are launched off the end of the belt, illuminated by LED lights and inspected entirely in-air with top- and bottom-mounted cameras positioned in a tilted-x configuration. Next-generation four-channel cameras combine visible color and infrared inspection at twice the resolution of previous-generation cameras. These sensors detect extremely subtle color differences and submillimeter characteristics to identify a wide range of product defects, foreign materials and extraneous vegetative matter. 

“VERYX, with its all-sided surface inspection, gives us a 360-deg view of each Brussels sprout,” Neal says. “Our new sorter has doubled our throughput without increasing our labor, [and] at the same time, we’re exceeding our high expectations for defect removal accuracy.”

Harvesting the benefits

VERYX also features auto-learning, self-adjusting algorithms, predictive system diagnostics and smart alarms. This enables it to adapt to normal fluctuations in the product and environment without manual intervention. Recipe-driven operation enables settings to be stored in the memory to speed product changeovers and ensure consistent sorting results.

“VERYX is so simple to use. One operator is able to run the entire processing line. The intuitive user interface presents different views to users of various levels depending on their needs, and it’s password protected,” Neal says. “The engineering manager, the main operator and I are the only ones who have a deep level of access, which prevents inadvertent changes by unqualified personnel.”

Once the Brussels sprouts are sorted and size graded they are bulk packed in cold storage during the harvest season from August to March. To fill orders, T H Clements pulls the sprouts from cold storage and either loose packs them into 14-kg bulk trays for foodservice and wholesale customers or sends them to vertical form/fill/seal machines to be packaged in retail packs that are 200, 300, 400 or 500 g in size.

“We manufacture mostly private label products, so customer satisfaction is incredibly important to us,” says Richard Mowbray, commercial director at T H Clements. “VERYX has helped us achieve our objectives and grow our business even with the tightening labor market.”