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Quality Digest

Customer Care

Cockerill Chooses Herbert OCULUS Optical Sorters

Key Technology’s system boosts quality, throughput

Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2023 - 12:59

(Key Technology: Walla Walla, WA) -- From humble beginnings growing vegetables for hungry neighbors during the Great Depression, R.S. Cockerill has grown to become one of the largest independent potato packers in the United Kingdom today. Cockerill credits much of this success to its top-quality potatoes and budget-friendly prices. These often-conflicting goals are both addressed with the help of Key Technology’s Herbert OCULUS optical sorters for whole potatoes, which automate defect removal to improve production efficiencies while ensuring final product quality.

“Before Herbert OCULUS we were sorting by hand, but that was getting increasingly difficult as the labor market got tighter, and extreme weather began making incoming product quality more variable,” says David Elvidge, operations manager at Cockerill. “We wanted to automate sorting to take some pressure off our workforce. At the same time, we wanted to improve the consistency of our final product quality when incoming defect loads would spike. We’ve been so happy with our first OCULUS, we bought four more last year.”

Installed at Cockerill’s retail packing facility at York in the U.K., five Herbert OCULUS sorters inspect whole, washed potatoes, finding and removing those with defects to ensure Cockerill achieves their final product quality specifications. The sorters recognize surface abnormalities and diseases, such as bumps and notches, skin discoloration, green colors, and defects like mechanical damage, scab, cracks, and black dot. They can also be programmed to reject potatoes with dimensions above or below the desired length and width.

Cockerill relies on five Herbert OCULUS optical sorters from Key Technology to ensure final product quality.

“Over the years, we’ve spoken with different optical sorter suppliers and visited sites across Europe to see a variety of technologies in action,” says John Robinson, engineering manager at Cockerill. “For whole potatoes, it’s clear to us that OCULUS is the winner. In addition to delivering reliable results, it’s well built and easy to operate. Among other things, we appreciate the straightforward user interface.”

“We’ve always enjoyed working with Key,” says Nick Larmour, technical manager at Cockerill. “Whenever we have a question, it’s easy for us to get in touch with them. If needed, Key technicians can even access our OCULUS sorters remotely, which helps us operate continuously at peak performance.”

The Herbert OCULUS conveys product over a series of rollers to present a complete 360-degree view of each tuber to the color cameras. Compared to traditional cascade bulk sorters, this method of sorting offers gentler handling and provides 20-percent more surface inspection to maximize defect removal. In addition to capturing images of all “good” and “bad” potatoes, Herbert OCULUS can collect detailed data about the throughput and grading results, including what percentage of the potatoes rejected had each type of defect, as well as the size of the potatoes.

“Thanks to OCULUS, we’ve reduced our reliance on manual labor,” says Larmour. “We used to have four to eight workers dedicated to manual inspection on each line. We struggled to hire enough people, and we struggled to achieve consistent defect removal since workers get tired and tend to remove either too much or too little. OCULUS makes objective, black-and-white sorting decisions hour after hour, so we’ve got more consistent final-product quality. At the same time, we’ve been able to increase our line throughput by 20 to 25 percent.”

Cockerill produces more than 1,500 metric tons of potatoes in retail packs for supermarkets every week, and even more in bulk to food processors. Cockerill selected midsize Herbert OCULUS systems from Key’s five available models to handle their line capacities of 2–8 metric tons of product per hour.

“Every customer always wants to remove all critical and major defects,” says Cockerill production manager Bartosz Wozniak. “But different SKUs allow for various amounts of minor defects, so we program the sorter at the beginning of each product run to meet the exact specifications required. During a product changeover, it takes just a couple of taps on the sorter’s touchscreen to recall a recipe saved to memory. Or, when we’re running a brand-new SKU, an operator can create a new sort recipe in less than five minutes by selecting from a list of defect types and choosing the allowable amount of each.”

“Our success depends on the success of our customers, so providing a reliably high-quality product on time and at an affordable price is vital,” says Elvidge. “Our Herbert OCULUS sorters achieve consistent defect removal at increased throughputs while lowering labor requirements. Plus, they’re easy to run and maintain. This technology has transformed the nature of our business—we can’t imagine having to operate without our OCULUS sorters again.”

Herbert OCULUS sorters inspect whole, washed potatoes for surface abnormalities, diseases, size, and other details.


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