Getting to the kernel of the job

‘Trawalla’, an Aboriginal word for ‘flood waters’, is the name of Stahmann Farm’s 700-hectare property in Moree, New South Wales. The farm is the company’s main source of pecan kernel in Australia.

The nuts harvested every June and are transported to North America, Europe and Japan  But first, the nuts are shipped to Toowoomba, Queensland, where 80 fulltime employees handle all cracking and processing on three sorting lines, each line working three shifts 48 weeks a year.

According to Ross Burling, general manager of Processing at Toowoomba, kernel quality can vary depending on post-harvest handling, weather, picking damage and other criteria. 

“We have lab specialists with over 25 years’ experience looking for kernel defects, insect damage and grading of the different kernel types,” he said.

It’s from these assessments that parameters are determined for proper, large-batch sorting of raw product, where the overall kernel value is defined. 

“This drives the need for highly sophisticated sorting equipment that can be easily configured to accurately process each run based on parameters set by lab analysis,” said Burling. 

An older automatic sorting system at Toowoomba was not reliable, flexible or operator-friendly enough for this important step. It created big production delays because the sorter took so much time to correctly program. Despite these efforts, the result typically was the accidental and unacceptable rejection of too much good product with the bad.

The team chose to invest in the BEST Helius freefall laser sorter three years ago. With up to 12 individual laser signals, the equipment is able to analyse structure, size and shape of the kernels in a single pass, and within milliseconds, uses its sensitive air guns to precisely eject any defect while allowing good product to continue its natural free fall.

The sorting system is also able to inspect the nuts and take out immature kernels. Because the ejection system is at the rear, air valves can be placed extremely close to the product which facilitates highly-targeted defect ejection. Since purchasing the Helius, the firm’s output has increased by 30% (900kg/hour average).

“Our firm differentiates itself by heavily focusing on reducing accidental rejects to increase profitable yield,” Burling says. 

The company credits the easy-to-use Helius operator interface as crucial to its success. A big advantage of the technology is its software is designed on a personal computer (PC) platform so an operator can intuitively perform very complex manipulations. This includes entering precise sorting parameters for each batch based on the hand crack assessment and instantly translating them to the processing platform. 

“Prior to Helius, either mysef or one of my specialist operators would spend hours holding up the line actually working on the factory floor programming the sorter,” he says.

“Now, the operator performs this vital task quickly, which takes me out of the loop entirely. However, if necessary, there’s a remote monitor with identical displays in my office that lets me check unit settings or even execute the same processes. It’s a great backup system.”

BEST service engineers can also access the Helius processing platform remotely using the same interfaces from PCs anywhere in the world.

“We see payback on this unit in two years,” said Burling.