By: Gerald Dlubala
Research shows that wine purchases are primarily made based on the bottle’s overall shelf presence, meaning the label, the brand, the story behind that brand and total aesthetic appeal. Every part of that shelf appearance is geared toward having the consumer pick your bottle from all the other choices in front of them. By incorporating automated inspection systems into your winery’s filling and packaging operation, you can present a consistently reliable product that will build brand awareness, product recognition and consumer trust. The types of automated inspections are varied, so the ones that are right and most economical for your winery will depend on the specific aspects of your winery’s production and operational speed.
“Typically, wineries will perform different inspections based on their output and line speed,” said Rick Reardon, General Manager, FT System North America. “A smaller winery where every bottle is touched by hand may only do a visual inspection, but this isn’t practical as line speeds increase, so the winery usually moves to automated inspection systems. Commonly used automated inspections include incoming glass inspections, fill level with cap/cork inspections, label inspections and case or packaging inspections. The most common are the fill level, cap and cork closure inspections, followed by label inspections. An improperly filled or labeled bottle is simply harmful to the brand consistency, while a bottle that is not properly closed can be a problem further down the line, particularly in the casing application. An open or leaking bottle in a case causes issues either in the warehouse or while in transit. These inspections are the easiest to implement and are proven to be cost-effective. The more important inspections are those that identify a hazard to the consumer. These inspections detect things like a chipped finish in the bottle, a foreign object inside the bottle, or some other defect in the glass that increases the potential of the bottle to fail. These inspections prove to be more critical in the wineries that manage bulk glass or use automatic uncasers.”
Automated in-line inspection systems are designed to inspect 100% of the contents in a consistent, repeatable and measurable way. Unlike their human inspector counterparts, they don’t impart any environmental interpretations or change their inspection parameters due to weariness, distractions, daydreams or some other type of inattentiveness. Machines inspect every bottle using the same parameters every time. Suppose the inspection system detects any defects or misapplied labels. In that case, the line workers will be alerted and allowed to take immediate corrective action versus waiting until the problem is detected further down the line in the packaging application or during a routine quality control check. If inspection applications detect that a filler or labeler is trending out of the desired tolerance or calibration settings, the operator will be able to take preventative action before an issue arises that would halt or disrupt production.
“An Empty Bottle Inspection system is commonly found on lines that run either bulk glass or lines that have automated uncasers,” said Reardon. “It is located before the filler and uses a series of cameras with specific lenses and illumination. By design, it looks for defects in the bottle glass, incorrect bottle sizes or foreign objects that may be inside the bottle. More specifically, the systems will inspect the individual bottle’s complete outer surface, including the finish, threads, neck and base. If your line utilizes a liquid rinser before the filler, there is available technology to detect any residual liquid left from the rinsing function as well. When a rejection occurs, there are a number of options to how the bottling lines can manage that. FT System inspection units can push the bottle off of the line, or we can sound an audio alarm or, if desired, we can send a signal that would immediately halt the line. It’s the user’s preference. The most common way for systems to reject a defective glass situation from the line is by using a standing rejector to guide the bottles off from the line without knocking them over. The reject device is always a critical part of any overall inspection system.”
Reardon said that because the wine sector traditionally uses round glass, the EBI systems are designed and optimized to manage that traditional round shape. But EBI systems will work on nearly any color or shape of glass bottle, including round, square, rectangular and flask shapes. FT System’s empty bottling inspection systems are flexible enough to easily change from one size or color to another while having the ability to store a large library of recipes to accommodate the different types of glass a winery will use throughout its production.
Empty bottle inspections are just one of the many bottling line inspection systems available. “Inspection systems on the bottling line are typically stand-alone units at different locations along the line to perform whatever inspections are desired,” said Reardon. “Glass inspection is done before the filler to remove any defective glass before it is filled with product. Fill level and closure inspections are placed after the filler, capper and corker block. A system performing label inspections would be located after the labeler and a case inspector immediately after the caser or case sealer. FT System inspection units are modular, so they are easily added, combined and mixed to meet every client’s unique needs.”
Operator and maintenance training is critical to the success of any piece of machinery on a bottling line, and Reardon said that the expectations for an automated inspection system are no different. But the level of operator and maintenance training varies depending on the inspection technology. While some systems, namely the fill level and closure inspection systems, can almost reflect a set and forget mentality, others require specific levels of training.
“Covid has illuminated the need and challenge of consistently receiving and delivering quality support while using different yet still successful ways that are still efficient,” said Reardon. “FT System maintains a dedicated U.S. field service team located across the country so that in the event on-site training or service is needed, we have a team based in the United States to manage that, meaning our customers will never have to rely on and wait for international travel restrictions to ease or open up. Additionally, all FT System inspection units can be accessed remotely for real-time diagnostics and remote support, which is a huge benefit. We have also had a few inquiries from wineries that are considering reducing the number of line workers to meet their needs or successfully increase social distancing between line staff. If a winery is still using human inspectors, then systems such as ours will allow them to meet that need.”
Reardon told The Grapevine Magazine that a common request he hears from wineries is to have the ability to identify minuscule pieces of glass inside a bottle after filling, seeming to suggest that this type of inspection requirement hasn’t been adequately accomplished or addressed. On the flip side, wineries are just not aware of the many needs they could easily meet by using automated inspection systems and the data they produce.
“We are seeing a trend in how the resulting inspection data is handled and managed, and it has proven to be critical and extremely valuable information. FT System is releasing a system that tracks the supplier quality data as part of the overall quality management system versus having and considering glass inspection as a stand-alone component or a single quality control point. Then the data results can be fed back to the glass supplier for support in their own production process. A future release will begin applying artificial intelligence analysis with data from the inspection system to provide the winery with predictive information, allowing them the ability to improve both their line efficiency and product quality.”
If a winery is looking to purchase and install a new automated inspection system, Reardon suggests they look past the simple return on investment analysis and include the resulting opportunities for improved line quality and efficiency. Always make sure that the inspection system has the flexibility not only to meet your current needs but at least some of your future projected needs as well. Then, make sure the supplier can offer and follow through with quality training and support, especially under less-than-ideal circumstances like those that we are all going through currently.
“Any winery that relies on some form of human inspection can benefit from an automated inspection system,” said Reardon. “And many customers are surprised when they hear just how cost-effective an automated system is. Aside from the fact that the inspection system is more repeatable, consistent and reliable than a human, an automated inspection system will free up the affected manpower for other tasks.”
As the canned wine business continues to grow, FT System is fielding an increased number of inquiries regarding similar types of automated inspection systems for canning lines. FT System does offer inspection solutions for wine canning lines to include empty can inspections, fill level inspections and leak detection systems. FT System has also recently developed and patented a solution that makes it possible to precisely and accurately assess whether the cap has been properly screwed onto 100% of bottled production, eliminating the possibility of finding bottles that are difficult to open or prone to leaking.