Innovative Automation Technologies Combine to Inspect and Sort Onions

All over the world, businesses of all types deploy advanced automation technologies such as robots, machine vision, and artificial intelligence software to automate different processes. At the Netherlands-based facility of one of the largest onion exporters in the world, this meant finding a system integrator and automation expert that could help them automate onion quality assurance and sorting.

Luckily for Wiskerke Onions, industrial automation company Famateq was up for the task of creating a system that could not only visually inspect the product but also handle the delicate and difficult-to-grasp onions. In 2019, Famateq installed a basic pick-and-place robotic system, but Wiskerke Onions wanted to automate the quality assurance and sorting processes as well. This meant finding a soft handling, food-safe gripper that could be easily adjusted to hold different types of onions, as well as different types of vegetables and fruits.

Famateq chose the mGrip solution from Soft Robotics, Inc. Inspired by the way an octopus grasps and manipulates different objects, the IP69K-rated gripper uses an advanced material science–based approach to pick up products of all types safely and efficiently. The plastic grippers are made of food-safe materials and hollow gripper fingers with flexible holds that are pneumatically controllable at low pressure. This allows the gripper to gently grasp objects such as onions without having to change or adapt variables of the automation system.

Large plastic bins holding nearly 1 ton (1000 kg) of onions come into the facility, where a bin tipper places them onto a flat belt that moves them onto small rollers in a grid array that takes the produce into Famateq’s Master Picker machine. Spread into a single layer of different shapes and sizes, the onions pass under a hyperspectral camera that captures 30 images of each onion at 1500 fps. The images transmit to a software program that uses machine learning to analyze the internal and external quality of the onions based on the image set.

The Master Picker system can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without making mistakes that a human inspector might make because they were fatigued. Based on the success of the initial system at Wiskerke Onions, another company in the same area purchased a Master Picker system to automate a similar process.

Companies that Famateq has worked within the food industry have taken notice of the Master Picker system and the Soft Robotics gripper, which handles difficult and delicate food items and see this combination as an effective method for solving a difficult automation problem, said Wim de Rijder, director, Famateq.

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