September/October 2022

Advanced technology for prune sorting
By Cat McBride, freelance writer

Mariani, a fourth-generation, family-owned company, has been in the dried fruit industry for 115 years. The company has adopted advanced technology to ensure the highest product quality and production efficiency.

With five facilities across the U.S. and Mexico, Mariani processes over 300 million lbs. of fruit annually and sells its product under the Mariani brand, under customers’ private labels and as bulk ingredients to food processors.

In 2021, Mariani began looking for a top-of-the-line digital sorter for a new prune sorting and grading line, located at their Marysville, California facility.

“Previously, we had a 12-year-old standalone sorter that performed better when all the fruit was the same size, so we had to grade the prunes prior to sorting,” said Andrew Kennedy, director of Grower Relations at Mariani. “We wanted to integrate sorting and grading on one line, and to do that, we needed a new sorter with a higher throughput, smaller footprint and more advanced sorting capabilities. We spoke with multiple suppliers and, based on that research, decided a VERYX digital sorter from Key Technology was the best solution.”

To maximize product quality, Mariani selected a fully loaded VERYX C140 chute-fed sorter with front- and back-mounted cameras, laser sensors and Key’s Pixel Fusion detection module to identify and remove all types of foreign material

Mariani is a fourth-generation dried fruit producer with five facilities across the U.S. and Mexico. Photos: Mariani

(FM) and the right amount of product defects to make grade. VERYX finds glass, rocks, plastic, insects, animal parts, extraneous vegetative matter (EVM) and more, as well as a variety of defects including scabs, cracks, exposed meat and brown rot.

“The most significant improvement we’ve seen since installing VERYX—we’ve virtually eliminated all Class 1 FM, which includes allergens like almond and walnut pieces that come from nearby growing fields. I cannot overstate what a big deal that is,” said Kennedy.

Mariani’s Marysville facility sorts and grades prunes before sending them 70 miles to their Vacaville, California, facility for further processing. If the Vacaville team identifies any Class 1 FM in a lot, they send it back to Marysville for re-sorting. Before Mariani installed VERYX last season, the Vacaville team sent back over 750,000 pounds of fruit. This season, they haven’t found a single Class 1 FM allergen in any lot Marysville has sent them. “VERYX has saved us an enormous amount of time and resources from this alone,” noted Kennedy.

VERYX’s chute-fed architecture enables all-sided surface inspection with no blind spots, which is essential for products like prunes that can have defects on any side. “Our old belt sorter inspected product from the top only, so it couldn’t see all the defects. Our chute-fed VERYX inspects the entire fruit, resulting in a more accurate sort,” said Mark Krause, Marysville plant manager at Mariani. Designed to sort up to 20,000 lbs. of prunes per hour, Mariani’s VERYX gives them room to grow.

“We saw lots of immediate improvements after installing our new sorter,” added Krause. “Before, when sorting and grading were separate, we needed 10 workers in total over two 8-hour shifts to keep up with our incoming raw product. By integrating high-speed sorting on the same line as grading, we now only need six people over one 10-hour shift.”

Mariani uses the VERYX digital sorter by Key Technology.

Finding reliable workers has been challenging the last few years due to the tight labor market. Mariani has increasingly relied on automated equipment like VERYX to assist their long-time employees. “With our new prune sorting-grading line, we’re able to keep all our wonderful, full-time operators and give them a better working environment while at the same time needing fewer seasonal workers,” said Kennedy.

Featuring 4-channel cameras and high-resolution laser sensors, VERYX recognizes the color, size, shape and structural properties of every object. Pixel-level input from cameras and laser sensors produce higher contrasts between different types of objects, enabling VERYX to identify the most-difficult-to-detect FM and product defects with virtually no false rejects. To maximize sort performance, Mariani is feeding VERYX with Key’s Iso-Flo® vibratory conveyor to gently spread and stabilize product for the most effective presentation to the sorter.

“VERYX outclasses our old sorter in many ways. For example, the old sorter would fire too heavily or not at all when it became bogged down with product buildup. We had to clean it regularly during operation, but that got the prunes wet and caused FM to stick to good product. It was a nightmare,” explained Krause. “Our new VERYX minimizes build-up. It runs perfectly without mid-shift washdowns, even over long production cycles, so product stays dry.”

“One of our favorite VERYX features is the remote monitoring capability, which lets a Key technician remotely access and adjust settings if needed. Previously, when something went wrong with our old sorter, we had to make an appointment with an in-person technician or email a bunch of photos to troubleshoot the problem,” said Krause. “Our VERYX really hasn’t had any issues or downtime, but we used remote monitoring for a minor tweak soon after installation. A Key technician was able to change an internal setting and optimize our sorter remotely very quickly.”

Before purchase, Key Technology tested Mariani’s product on a VERYX in their lab to determine the best configuration and options for the specific application.

“Because of the severe drought in California over the past few years, recent prune crops have been smaller than normal, with less inventory and no backup crop. It would’ve been hard for us to satisfy customer demand with our old sorting and grading setup. Our VERYX has helped us achieve all our goals,” concluded Kennedy.


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