The UK’s R S Cockerill, one of the largest independent potato packers in the country, utilizes Key Technology’s Herbert OCULUS optical sorters to automate defect removal for potatoes, enhancing efficiency. 

“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. 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,” says David Elvidge, Cockerill’s operations manager. 

Installed at Cockerill’s retail packing facility in York, UK, five Herbert OCULUS sorters inspect whole, washed potatoes—finding and removing those with defects. 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. The system can also be programmed to reject potatoes with dimensions above or below the desired length and width.

“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.”

Herbert OCULUS conveys product over a series of rollers to present a 360° view of each tuber to the color cameras. This method of sorting offers gentle handling and provides a reported 20% more surface inspection to maximize defect removal. In addition to capturing images of all "good" and "bad" potatoes, Herbert OCULUS can collect data about the throughput and grading results, including what percentage of the potatoes rejected had each type of defect and the size of the potatoes.

“Thanks to OCULUS, we’ve reduced our reliance on manual labor. 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,” explains Nick Larmour, technical manager at Cockerill. “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%.”

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. The company selected midsize Herbert OCULUS systems from Key’s five available models to handle the line capacities of two to eight metric tons of product per hour.

“Every customer always wants to remove all critical and major defects, 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,” says Bartosz Wozniak, production manager at Cockerill. “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.”

“At the end of the day, 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. Our Herbert OCULUS sorters achieve consistent defect removal at increased throughputs while lowering labor requirements. Plus, they’re easy to run and maintain,” says Elvidge. “This technology has transformed the nature of our businesswe can’t imagine having to operate without our OCULUS sorters again.”