Almond Inspection Goes High-Tech

November 18, 2016

In Manteca, CA about 90 minutes south of Sacramento sits Travaille and Phippen, a family-run business focused on processing the world's finest almonds. Manteca sits at the heart of California's agricultural valley, which is ripe with growers and processing companies of everything from avocados to nuts. Chances are, the produce that you pick up at your local grocery store comes from this fertile part of California that stretches hundreds of miles from north to south.

Almonds are increasingly America's favorite variety of nut, with consumption rate increases that are far surpassing those of even peanuts. And this preference is not limited to America; most other parts of the world share this craze for almonds. Indeed, the acknowledged health properties of almonds make them a favorite, guilt-free snack.

Sitting between growing and eating almonds sits an important phase of the operation: Processing and inspection. At Travaille and Phippen, there is a recognition that diligent inspection protocols can result in a rapid payback: Consumers see a higher-quality product and government regulators appreciate their proactive approach to quality and safety. Scott Phippen is CEO of Travaille and Phippen, and he has made this connection while many of his competitors have not. "Our success comes from delivering pristine quality almonds globally," he said. "Whether it's Japan, the Middle East, or here in America, there are differing preferences for what consumers like to see. But what doesn't differ is a need for highest quality."



One of the approaches Phippen embraced was to adopt spectral imaging technology near the end of the inspection process. The normal 'upstream' processes are designed to take out foreign material such as twigs, rocks and bits of shell. As 'good' product moves through to the final inspection stages, spectral imaging takes over to deliver a more granular look at the almonds. "Coloration is a huge grading factor," said Phippen. "You can have two or three really good-looking almonds in your inspection stream, with each having a slightly different tone or color. Spectral imaging allows us to segregate these 'good but different' almonds better than we ever could."

Getting Travaille and Phippen to this stage was a classic exercise in integration between Headwall and Bratney Companies (Des Moines, IA). Bratney provided several fully integrated inspection lines that featured conveyors, sensors, vacuum robots, and software control that allowed Travaille and Phippen to significantly boost its inspection quality while using 60% fewer people. For Peter Bratney, CEO of Bratney Companies, the overall marriage between varying but complimentary technologies is paying dividends. "Travaille and Phippen is just one example of our integration expertise delivering a demonstrable return on investment," said Peter. "Headwall's hyperspectral imaging sensors can 'see' with a resolution and clarity that allows any food processing company to grade or distinguish its product better than ever."

As almonds enter the final inspection stream, small hyperspectral sensors silently scan from above. The sensors are armed with spectral libraries (basically algorithms) that represent 'instruction sets' for the downstream robotic arms a few feet down the line. Almonds that match a pre-determined spectral signature are allowed to pass while ones that don't are vacuumed away. These might be cracked almonds, or even bits of foreign material not captured during earlier inspection phases. But color uniformity is important in the almond business, and the Bratney solution allows Travaille and Phippen to distinguish between almonds with miniscule coloration differences. “This is where advanced machine vision is headed,” said Bratney. “The key is in identifying cutting-edge technologies and then integrating them for the common good.”

The food-processing industry understands imaging technology to a degree. RGB (red, green, blue) cameras are familiar. But today, with product quality and safety on everyone's mind, a finer net is needed. The push toward 'Advanced Machine Vision' is gathering momentum as food processing companies recognize that new types of spectral imaging technologies are needed. "Travaille and Phippen is capturing attention in the competitive global almond market because of their proactive approach to technology,” said Bratney. “This allows them to deliver a level of quality that’s hard for others to match.”