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This is the story of a family farm in the North of France, handed down from father to sons some twenty years ago. Over two decades, the sons have earned a fine reputation in the washed potato business.
Following the early years of steady growth, the first wave of investment was decided in 2007 to provide for increased activity. A sorting line featuring a first-generation automatic sorter was installed in a new building to develop the target markets: supermarkets and export, and packaging services for third parties.
To begin with, the two Vandaele brothers only processed the production of their family fields. Subsequently, they considered increasing the volumes by sourcing produce from other producers and importing packaged potatoes, or by packaging potatoes for third parties.
Their objective was to increase the volume by 30%. However, achieving this growth would require increasing the workforce dedicated to manual sorting, which proved to be a challenge, and installing a second processing line to double the number of manual sorting lines.
This was required because Flandre Pomme de Terre’s main activity is focused on very small calibers, which are delicate and tiring products to sort even for the most experienced operators.
The future, therefore, lay in a different direction: equipping the existing line with a new sorting machine of the highest quality, an optical sorter, to manage the increase in output.
"This was the best way of ensuring a constant hourly sorting throughput while minimizing the organizational impact, to increase throughput during the season and achieve the desired growth, without the constraints resulting from recruiting and training seasonal workers, and without worrying about a drop in quality," explains Olivier Vandaele, CEO Flandre Pomme de Terre.
Having researched the solutions available on the market and having tested his samples at the demo center in Leuven, Olivier Vandaele opted for TOMRA Food's Sentinel II.
Installed last November, the machine has now been running at full capacity on the sorting line for three months processing all varieties. It has already completely revolutionized the working processes. The sorting teams’ shifts have been shortened, relieving the hardship of the job and even making it possible to assign these staff to other tasks in the plant.
"A TOMRA Food technician spent two days on-site when the machine was installed. He trained us, talked us through the details of the most useful pre-programs, and showed us how to make adjustments and settings," explains the operator.
"With each batch that arrives for sorting, we just have to check the machine setting to take into account differences in the products’ color, for example. We also have to take into account the criteria set by our customers. It is easy to learn, and I hope that before long I will be fully conversant with the sorter’s operation. I will soon be able to optimize the Sentinel II as expertly as the technicians at the Leuven test center," says Olivier Vandaele, smiling.
In its first season of operation, the Sentinel II has achieved very good levels of performance. Difficult digging conditions in 2019, in very spongy soil, resulted in a lot of shells around the potatoes coming off the fields, which the Sentinel II was able to detect and sort.
The Sentinel II is placed after the washer/polisher on the line. The machine is set for three outputs: waste, large and small sizes, and the good product. It has enabled the plant to manage the volumes easily.
The Sentinel II allows quality inspection of the washed tubers as they fall. Green, rotten, scab, and other major defects are easily isolated and directed to the waste. Downstream of the sorter, manual finishing is greatly simplified on the inspection table.
"The batches of products obtained with the TOMRA optical sorter have very homogeneous characteristics, which optimizes the subsequent stages of the process to meet specific customer specifications," explains Olivier Vandaele.
Grégoire Volpoet, Area Sales Manager, who monitored the project, adds: "It was above all to increase production capacity without being constrained by the difficulty of recruiting qualified personnel, that Flandre Pomme de Terre sought more advanced automation of sorting. In the end, it was the quality obtained with TOMRA technology that convinced the customer of the relevance of the investment. We are delighted with the customer's satisfaction with this new equipment, it's the beginning of a story that will last. It's very rewarding for the whole team."