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Success story Agristo, Belgium


Agristo invested in two new optical sorters and one upgrade of an older installation. After an extensive market analysis, the potato processor decided to consign this project to TOMRA. The most important reason why they chose TOMRA above competitors was the fact that TOMRA’s Genius sorter was technologically the pick of the bunch and was furthermore able to anticipate new tendencies and customer requirements.

Agristo was founded in 1985 by two Belgian associates who were active in the agricultural and frozen food industry. It all started with a small production line in Harelbeke (West-Flanders) where about 20,000 tons of frozen French fries were produced. Antoon Wallays, a member of the board of directors, says: “The Belgian retail market was almost completely occupied at that time, so Agristo always concentrated on the export market. In the beginning we mainly worked for the French market, but we gradually became active in more and more countries. In 2001 we were already producing 60,000 tons of product per year. When we took over a production facility in Tilburg (The Netherlands), we nearly doubled our capacity. From that moment on, everything went very fast. Thanks to a well-considered operational management and an effective investment policy, we produced more than 140,000 tons of product last year, which resulted in a turnover of about 100 million euros.”

“Today we produce frozen French fries and other potato products such as spicy wedges and baked potatoes. In total, we have fifty different recipes and hundreds of references. Three fourths of our products is under a private label, while the remainder has been commercialized under our own brands Agristo, International, Maestro and Mondy. Agristo is still an export concentrated company; our assortment is now available all over the world, in more than thirty countries.”

“About seventy percent is sold in Europe, with France and the United Kingdom being the most important consumers. The remainder is sold in Australia, Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East. Our customers’ database consists mainly of large distributors, but we also supply to catering companies and producers of ready meals.”

Strong preference for Pulsarr

From the beginning, Agristo chose advanced automation and was never afraid to take risks. The potato processor was one of the very first customers of the Dutch company Pulsarr. Dieter Raes from the Project/Automation department in Agristo says: “It was a well-considered decision to start working with Pulsarr. The RX sorting machine that Pulsarr offered at that time was without a doubt one of the best that was available on the market. Furthermore, the machine turned out to be very effective and reliable. That is the reason why we stuck with Pulsarr when we needed an additional sorting machine for our new production facility in The Netherlands.”

Need for modernization

At a certain time, even the most progressive machines become outdated. Due to the limited capacity, the original sorter became a bottleneck in Agristo’s production a couple of years ago. Raes explains: “We were growing about ten percent every year, so the problems grew worse and worse. Last year, the management decided to tackle the problem and released the needed budget for a total modernization project.”

“In the meantime, Pulsarr had been taken over by TOMRA and we did not have any experience with that manufacturer. We decided not only to consider TOMRA’s offer, but also to study the other possibilities that were on the market. According to our analysis it became clear that TOMRA stood out concerning future technology. In addition, their Genius sorters have some features that are very interesting for our production. The infeed shaker, for example, with a width of two meters instead of the usual 1.6 meters, tackled one of the most important bottlenecks in our production. The possibility to monitor and operate the machine from a distance also appealed to us. This way, we could operate and supervise the whole process from the quality department.”

“Furthermore, TOMRA can connect to the machine from anywhere in the world for online assistance and diagnosis. A third aspect which makes the Genius stand out from competitors is the accuracy and user friendliness. Before start-up, a frame grab, which reflects a real picture of the good and bad incoming French fries, is made and recorded by the installation memory. It is on the basis of this image that the sorter inspects all products to find defects. This is a very flexible way of working and makes it easy to meet customers’ requirements.”

Wallays continues: “Another advantage was that TOMRA was also able to upgrade our other sorter. This way, we received a machine with advanced technology that could operate on the same Genius platform without having to invest in a new system. It is a big advantage to dispose of the latest technology without having to change the production line and uniformity of installations is important for the operator and maintenance people. Finally, the proximity of the company played a role in our decision process. Sorting machines play a crucial role in our production. If they break down, they need to be repaired as quickly as possible. We felt it was important to be able to count on a Belgian company for such reparations.”

Genius

The new optical sorter is located in the fresh cut department of Agristo and is meant to detect and reject all potato products with color or structural defects and possible foreign material. Steve Raskin, Area Sales Manager of TOMRA, explains the technical aspects of the installation. It is a modular system that can be equipped with monochromatic and/or full color cameras, fluo, laser and/or infrared technology, etc. according to the customers’ requirements.

“What makes our sorters different from others is their flexibility to be extended or adapted at any time after the machine has been installed. Most new developments can be implemented in existing equipment. This results in a machine that can grow along with the customer. Furthermore, the cameras work according to the worldwide accepted CameraLink™ protocol, which makes it easy for us to implement new types of cameras. Because of this, the system will always be progressive. Finally, we use a manifold with powerful air guns that react three times faster in our newest sorters. Thanks to their speed and precision, less good product is wasted. The products fall directly from the cutting line onto the infeed shaker, which spreads the product uniformly and evenly.”

“The product then arrives in the inspection zone where six cameras detect defects from all sides. The position of the product that does not meet these quality standards is recorded in the electronics. This information is passed on to the manifold (positioned at the end of the conveyor belt) where the right air gun removes the affected French fries just a few milliseconds after detection, while the good product continues untouched into the accept chute and onto the production line.”

Compliments to TOMRA

TOMRA installed an optical sorter in the Agristo facilities in Belgium and The Netherlands. Furthermore, they upgraded a sorting machine which is located further in the processing line and inspects the frozen fries before they are packed. Raes explains: “We actually only kept the frame, the belt and the manifold. Everything else - cameras, computer, software - was replaced. The reason why we chose an upgrade was that we did not have enough space to install a new larger sorter. Also, the capacity did not need to increase in this stadium.”

Wallays concludes: “We are very pleased with the professionalism of TOMRA. The whole project took only four days for every facility to install the machines, one of which was entirely spent on training the personnel. That is a very short time for such an installation, especially if you know we did not encounter any kind of problem after start-up of the machine. TOMRA also deserves a compliment for their workmanship and service. That is why we have already consigned a new project to TOMRA: the development of a sorting machine for an additional production line in The Netherlands that will become operational next year. If they complete that project with the same kind of professionalism, TOMRA will without a doubt become our supplier for everything concerning sorting and vision technology.”