Quantitative chemical imaging: transferring characteristic laboratory quality control to the production line
Features such as safety, quality and speed are key factors that strongly differentiate domestic companies from their global competitors. Topics such as digitisation, Industry 4.0, environmental protection and 5G are on everyone’s lips. Modern production facilities around the world are committed to reliable quality control of the products that enter and leave the plant. Optimising production is therefore becoming increasingly important for various sectors such as the food industry, the recycling industry, the wooden industry and other consumer and capital goods production sectors to ensure that their products are competitive on the international market.
Italy is one of the top five exporting countries inside and outside the EU, with a total share of exports of goods and services amounting to 31.8% of GDP. Italy exports, in terms of total volume, mainly to Germany (12.6%¹), France (10.5%¹) and the United States (9.2%¹) and imports at the same time 29.3%¹ measured in terms of GDP. This means that in the future the Italian economy will have to pay even more attention to the quality of imported goods in order to guarantee the safety of Italian consumers and also to exported goods in order to be able to continue to supply the best quality Italian products abroad.
Many quality control methods are not adequate
Many quality control methods in the food, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, but also in the production of secondary solid fuels (SSC)/waste derived fuel (RDF) and secondary raw materials in the recycling industry are based on the results of laboratories with high-precision instruments and measuring methods.
However, these methods often do not provide accurate and reliable data on the entire product stream due to too few samples, and this procedure is in no way in line with current quality and safety standards.
Let’s take an example from the food industry: in poultry processing, the so-called Wooden Breast Defect occurs. Nowadays, employees in the quality control department of poultry meat processors have to detect whether the meat has any irregularities simply by touching it. New sensor technologies connected to the plant control system, such as hyperspectral imaging, detect in fractions of a second on the conveyor belt whether the chicken meat is fit for consumption or not and then make the decision on how to further process the product. In contrast to manual inspection, they are able to guarantee consumers much higher quality and safety standards. In addition, the company has the opportunity to save time and money by further processing the product.
What is hyperspectral imaging?
Hyperspectral imaging, which is at the heart of this new type of quality control, is a technology originally developed for the aerospace industry and is also used to explore distant galaxies. With this technology, you don’t see the actual colour of the element being observed, but you can recognise the chemical composition of the material through reflected light and its wavelength. It is therefore possible to measure the chemical composition of a particular material, as the following two images demonstrate.
The photos were taken on 03/07/2019 in a lab of EVK DI Kerschhaggl GmbH in Graz, Austria.
On the left you can see the original sample photo made up of several so-called plastic flakes, which are used for energy recovery in waste-to-energy plants. On the right side you can see the same plastic flakes that were captured with hyperspectral imaging and then divided into different categories and classes. Subsequently, the image was converted to 24-bit false colour (RGB), i.e. visible to the human eye. In this process, we give the different types of plastic, independently of their real colour, a colour defined by us to clearly distinguish one from the other. We thus determine the type and quality of the material. The photo above shows the different types of polymers: ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) in red, POM (polyoxymethylene) in blue, PC (polycarbonate) in green, PE (polyethylene) in yellow and PS (polystyrene) in purple.
“This is how we at EVK see the world,” explains Dr Matthias Kerschhaggl, one of the pioneers in the research and development of this technology, with a smile. “In this case we have made the otherwise invisible chemical composition of the observed material visible. Through the optimised use of algorithms and machine learning, decisions for the further processing of different materials are made in real time. In this way, the product flow in a plant can be constantly monitored with the necessary precision, detecting even small deviations. We are very proud of what we have achieved in the last 10 years in terms of food safety and sustainable systems for a more sustainable treatment of our environment for the benefit of our children,” explains Dr. Kerschhaggl, who is also a father of two.
“We were immediately fascinated by the technology developed by EVK for the virtuous spin-offs that the application of hyperspectral imaging can have in numerous sectors,” said Rossano Codeluppi, President and CTO of HDM. “These reasons led us to establish a partnership with EVK for the distribution of the product in Italy. HDM’s goal is to develop systems based on the most innovative technologies on the market to promote the adoption of models that integrate quality and sustainability.
Recycling is also good for nature
An example from the recycling industry shows that the environment also benefits from this new connected sensor technology. The well-planned and controlled treatment of waste in waste incinerators offers, on the one hand, the opportunity to produce energy efficiently from existing secondary raw materials and, on the other hand, the possibility of protecting the environment and reducing CO2 emissions caused by the excessive incineration of fossil fuels.
The Italian recycling industry is working hard to find a solution to local waste management in cities such as Rome and Naples. Waste-to-energy plants in northern Italy that comply with EU directives have been obliged to saturate their thermal load with waste produced in the rest of Italy. It is a fact that in 2018 plastics and their products as an export commodity accounted for 2.1%¹¹ of Italy’s GDP¹. In addition to national challenges, the waste problem also poses international obstacles to be overcome. Since China, with its so-called “National Sword Policy”, has seriously intervened in the recycling structures of European countries by only allowing the import of “unsorted” plastics, the sorting of polymers in Italy has also become a relevant factor. This applies, for example, to the export of materials consisting of different polymers.
In addition, the circular economy packet foresees binding material recycling quotas for EU Member States, i.e. the re-use of waste as a secondary raw material. The recycling rate for plastic packaging is expected to increase to 55% by 2025. This means that politicians will also have to commit to putting recovered materials back into circulation. “It should be remembered that recycling a PET bottle is relatively easy, but a supermarket slicing tray made of different plastics is much more difficult to recycle and is not suitable for conventional recycling processes³”, says one of the most renowned research specialists in recovery and waste management Prof. Roland Pomberger of the University of Leoben, Austria. Here, technologies such as modern image processing and, above all, hyperspectral imaging, which makes the chemical composition visible to the human eye, can remedy the situation. Although Italy has already achieved recycling targets for packaging in many areas, it is 41% behind on the plastics recycling front. Again, hyperspectral imaging technology linked to modern data analysis systems can make an important contribution to keeping our environment cleaner and reducing marine pollution with non-reusable plastics.
¹ https://wko.at/statistik/laenderprofile/lp-italien.pdf, 20 august 2019
² http://www.worldstopexports.com/top-european-export-countries/, 28 august 2019
³ Interview with Prof. Pomberger from the Austrian economics magazine Spirit of Styria, July 2019 edition, Issue 06, Volume 3, July/August 2019; S.15-21
EVK DI Kerschhaggl GmbH
EVK is an expert in the sector of industrial imaging and data processing and provides sensor-based solutions for the sorting and analysis of bulk solids in sectors such as recycling, mining, food and pharmaceuticals. The company specialises in data classification and analysis using hyperspectral and inductive sensor technologies and provides complete solutions from data acquisition through to data processing and decision making for industry.
CFC Electronic S.r.l.
CFC specialises in a wide range of sensors for pressure, humidity, force, gas, etc., to meet the diverse needs of our customers in various fields of application. Our philosophy is to offer a product with high technological content, combined with a consultancy service to identify the best solution for each type of project. Our aim is to become an increasingly important reference point on the market, offering advanced solutions to meet all our customers’ sensor requirements.
HDM Group S.r.l.
HDM Group is a company that, through its continuous research activities in the IoT world and decades of experience in the world of big data and hardware design, is able to offer its customers a full integration system service at 360 degrees. Our activities include the entire EMEA area.