From humble beginnings growing vegetables for hungry neighbours during the Great Depression, RS Cockerill has grown to become one of the largest independent potato packers in the United Kingdom today. They credit much of this success to their 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 labour 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,” said David Elvidge, Operations Manager at Cockerill. “We’ve been so happy with our first OCULUS, we bought four more last year.”

Installed at Cockerill’s retail packing facility in York, UK, 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 recognise surface abnormalities and diseases, such as bumps and notches, skin discolouration, green colours 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.

“Over the years, we’ve spoken with different optical sorter suppliers and visited sites across Europe to see a variety of technologies in action,” said 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. Whenever we have a question, it’s easy for us to get in touch with them,” said Nick Larmour, Technical Manager at Cockerill. “If needed, Key technicians can even access our OCULUS sorters remotely, which helps us operate continuously at peak performance.”

Herbert OCULUS conveys product over a series of rollers to present a complete 360-degree view of each tuber to the colour cameras. Compared to traditional cascade bulk sorters, this unique method of sorting offers gentler handling and provides 20 percent more surface inspection to maximise 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 and the size of the potatoes.

“Thanks to OCULUS, we’ve reduced our reliance on manual labour. 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,” explained Larmour. “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. They selected midsize Herbert OCULUS systems from Key’s five available models to handle their line capacities of 2 to 8 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,” said 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 labour requirements. Plus, they’re easy to run and maintain,” said Elvidge. “This technology has transformed the nature of our business – we can’t imagine having to operate without our OCULUS sorters again.”