A question of scale
Greater need for control on pack weights, sizes and content is driving innovation in the weighing equipment sector. Chloe Smith explores the
Japan is home to many of the world's most impressive technological advances, some more useful than others. In the
larger cities, sensors on public toilets trigger music whenever someone sits down; elsewhere, bullet trains transport commuters hundreds of miles in the time it would take the average Brit to drive a few hundred metres in London's city centre during rush hour.
Japan is also the place where
Ishida has been developing a new multi-head weigher that it hopes will shake up the international market. As the inventor of the multi-head weigher, Ishida knows a thing or
two about how to develop new equipment and the company holds hundreds of patents to protect its original designs.
The new weigher, which Ishida showcased at IFFA in Germany earlier this month, has the breakthrough feature of being able to handle sticky, marinated products without the intervention of an operator. Previously, multi-head weighers were suited only to frozen or dry products.
Paul Griffin, marketing director of Ishida in Europe, says this machine is a totally new development: "Some people claim they can sell multi-head weighers to handle very sticky products. But what normally happens is you end up with an operator standing on the gantry at the top of the machine helping the product
feed, because it doesn't do so very naturally. This will do away with operator intervention."
The machine is still at the pre-production model phase and is so new that the name has not yet been decided upon. "Japan has been developing and trying to optimise the design, but it may be we don't fully launch for another six to 12 months," says Griffin.
The new weigher works like this, he explains: "With a multi-head weigher, vibration is the key to moving the product along. If you vibrate a solid product it will move, so you can feed it across the radial feeders into the hoppers horizontally. As soon as you get a sticky product, it is difficult to move it through vibrations."
So Ishida has chosen to use scraper hoppers on the new multi-head weigher: "Instead of having hopper doors that open and close where product can stick, the door moves in a scraping action and doesn't allow product to stick to the opening part," says Griffin. This new weigher builds on the technology that created Ishida's R-Series in 2005, which Griffin claims is still the most advanced multi-head weigher in the world. "Its speed and accuracy is above any competitor and it's as close to 100% accurate as you'll ever get," he says.
The design of weighing machines and their functions varies vastly, but weighing itself is a fairly simple science. So if the accuracy of machines is now so good it is difficult to improve it, how are weighing machines developing?
Automation is the answer, says Griffin: "The area of weighing that is probably most innovative is applying weighing to areas which are manual at the moment, where it is hand-weighed or where it is volume-filled." The challenge, he says, "is trying to design equipment so it can handle different labels and different shapes; that's the biggest challenge for companies like ourselves." Software developments also influence the development of new weighing machinery. But, says
Griffin, "The question is whether
that can be interpreted into a gain for the customer."
So can software improvements actually make a difference to processors' profits? "Software continually develops because of changes in technology such as chips, the boards and faster processing speeds. At the moment, in terms of our latest multi-head, there is practically no giveaway, so in terms of weighing accuracy we're very close to the ultimate, but of course speed is always an issue," he adds. Technology may not be able to improve accuracy much more, but machines can always get faster, he says: "A machine that runs on a particular product at 80 per minute now, can perhaps be increased, over the next five years, to 100 or 110."
Flexibility in weighing machinery will also improve, says Griffin: "You go to a meat factory now and there are a lot more value-added products. You get things like goulash, ribs, products in sauces. So the more the equipment can adapt from one thing to another, the better for the customer."
It was with an eye on flexibility that global machinery company Avery Weigh Tronix designed its latest weigh-price labellers, the A3000 and the M3000 - automatic and manual machines respectively - which were launched in early 2007. Programmable for any change in specification that the multiples may demand, the new Avery Weigh Tronix machines can weigh and process fixed-weight products, randomly cut catch-weight products and average weight products, for which the European standard allows slight variations in weight between packs, so long as the average is the same as the label claims. The ability to switch between fixed, catch and average weight is not a brand new development. But, says David Hardy, market manager for the food industry at Avery Weigh Tronix, the M3000 and the A3000 are excellent value for money: "What's new about this machine - the thrust of what we're offering customers - is all the latest requirements for weighing and for label printing and label size, but at a very economic price."
Hardy agrees that the science of weighing is simple and says that because accuracy is so good now, weighing machines are developing along simpler lines: "These are very accurate pieces of equipment. It's just a case of, how do you design them and produce them in such a way, so as to have all that capability but at a reasonable price? "Our market price is going to be about £12,500 and the list price of the one we sold originally was £16,500, so we've managed to reduce the cost by 25-30%. An end-user price of £12,500 is really going to shake up the market because a lot of companies are way above that," says Hardy.
The ability for processors to shift between fixed-weight, catch-weight and average-weight is hugely important because the supermarkets can change their requirements in an instant. Hardy says that, at the moment, the supermarkets are starting to move away from fixed-weight products and are shifting towards more catch-weight products that offer the consumer a wide variety of weights to choose from.
The perception is, says Hardy, that catch-weight meats or cheeses are more 'natural' than uniform blocks that all weigh the same. "Where there is a choice of pack weights, consumers perceive that product to be more of a fresh item compared with those that sit in the chill counter and are all exactly 500g and look perfect. It is a little bit like eggs that have a bit of straw stuck to them; they are perceived to be fresh."
The trend towards random catch-weight products is good news for producers, says Hardy, because there is less wastage: "The advantage of random weight is that it is generally cheaper to produce. If you have staff that are picking and mixing lamb chops to make them all fixed weight, there is always going to be a set amount of rejects, because some are going to be too light." Dealing with the multiples means processors must be flexible, says Hardy: "They're all looking for an edge. That's the kind of volatile market we're in."
It is perhaps for that reason that so many new weighing systems have been launched recently, especially at IFFA. British company Espera Scales, based in Daventry, was among them, attending IFFA with a whole new range of weighing equipment, including two new manual weighing systems in its ES2000 series for bulky or delicate items that cannot go through automated systems.
The ES2012 weighing and labelling system has a 12kg stainless steel platform suitable for pricing products that will go directly onto the shelf, whereas its more heavy-duty sister machine, the ES2060, can take up to 60kg on its stainless steel platform and can handle crates and boxes. Espera's ES7000 weighing system has also recently been upgraded, with a printer that can take up to five cassettes, either with multiple rolls of the same label (which eliminates down-time when changing labels) or with different labels. The system then selects the correct label to use for each product.
The company also develops automated weighing systems and, to complete the new launches, Espera has brought out a heavy-duty automatic weigher and labeller, the ES6000. The machine is suitable for large items, from whole turkeys up to 20kg blocks of meat. The ES6000 is capable of weighing and labelling at up to 30 items per minute, according to Espera.
The scales company is also aiming to cut processors' give-away with an eight-channel weight sorter, which can be fitted to any of Espera's
weigh-price labellers and sorts packs into fixed-weight boxes.
Also at IFFA was machinery company AEW Delford, which launched two new pieces of weighing equipment. Dave Evans, sales director of AEW Delford, says the trend towards providing full traceability, a major trend in food production, was the driving factor in the development of a new vision system, the VS200, which was on display at the exhibition. The VS200 will aid traceability by taking a picture of the product once it is labelled and checking whether the details are correct. It could prove important in protecting processors, explains Evans: "If you've got nuts in a product and you're missing that information, somebody could die."
Proving that it is a busy year so far for new launches, AEW Delford also chose IFFA to introduce a new weigh-price label system to the market, which is designed to handle heavy-duty products. The company says the WPL8500 has been designed to handle items such as bulk or catering packs up to 600mm long and 600mm wide, weighing up to 27.5kg. It can also be used to apply warehouse tracking labels to boxes and crates or information for customers on the outer packaging.
Heavy-duty weighing machines are a new area for AEW Delford, which has previously concentrated on machinery for smaller, consumer packs. But, according to Evans, the new machine has been developed as part of a company strategy, "to enhance our total line solutions". The WPL8500 operates at speeds of up to 35 items a minute and can be supplied with conveyors, which can be washed down and are easy to remove for cleaning. says the firm.
Ease of cleaning is, of course, essential for food processing equipment to maintain hygiene standards. It was for this reason that AEW Delford designed another of its weighing systems, the Guardian G2200 checkweigher, which, although not new, Evans believes is "a unique machine" in its class. "The Guardian G2200 is one of the highest-rated checkweighers for waterproofing, without a doubt," says Evans. It can is constructed from stainless steel, with food-quality belts throughout, processing at a rate of 180 packs per minute. It also can handle up to 200 pre-programmable product memories and, to ensure accurate weighing, has a sensitive shock-proof weigh cell.
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