ROI

Phasing Out the Lab with Real-Time, Near-Infrared Spectrometers

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If you’re waiting around for a lab analysis to confirm that the moisture content of a product is safe for consumption, or that the level of sugar is consistent, you could be risking product waste or missing out on opportunities to improve taste and quality. That’s why Brimrose Corporation of America designed a solution that delivers those results instantaneously.

Brimrose is a designer and manufacturer of imaging and sensing technologies located in Hunt Valley, Maryland. We spoke with David Chaffee, Director of Marketing and Business Development, and Applications Engineers Drake Lentz and Zubin Mehta to find out how their in-line spectrometers can cut out time-consuming lab analysis and boost ROI.

Brimrose was started by Dr. Ron Rosemeier from Johns Hopkins University about 40 years ago. Today, the company has three primary divisions: R&D, acousto-optic components, and spectrometers. The acousto-optic tunable filter, near-infrared (AOTF-NIR) spectrometers are ideal for process control systems in a variety of food industry applications. “We cover the whole gamut,” Lentz says, “any food that is produced. It's all organic, so we can measure properties of any part of it.”

The real-time advantage

The AOTF-NIR spectrometer operates with its own light source, which passes through an AOTF crystal at a speed of 16,000 wavelengths per second. The light is then directed through a fiber optic cable to read and display the product sample on a computer via ethernet or WiFi connection. This technology, which measures moisture, sugar, fat, proteins, acids, and more, can deliver up to 10 readings per second. Best of all, it does so without harming, or even contacting, the food.

The primary benefit of using these in-line spectrometers is getting immediate data to address quality control issues quickly. “Otherwise,” Lentz says, “they would have to send someone out, get a sample, go back to the lab, and analyze that sample. It can take hours before they get a result.” Spectrometers like Brimrose’s eliminate the need for lab analysis, which is expensive to operate and maintain. “One of the things we always say to customers is, ‘Why are you still in the lab?’ Because you don't need a lab if you have a Brimrose device.”

Fast results help identify pre-production problems and prevent food waste. If processors are aware of inconsistencies before starting production, rather than hours later, they can avoid throwing out entire batches. Spectrometers also improve shelf life and product quality, including flavor and texture. The right amount of sugar, for instance, gives peanuts a better taste, and the right amount of salt in cake batter leads to the perfect rise. “We measure all of that and provide accurate data,” Lentz says.

Fast ROI and regulatory compliance

When linked with process controls to improve product quality, spectrometers ultimately result in a fast ROI. Lentz illustrates this with a few examples from Brimrose’s customers, one of which needed a solution for measuring moisture in breadcrumbs.

During the process, the breadcrumbs go into an oven to bake out the moisture. Brimrose installed a spectrometer near the oven to analyze the components of the breadcrumbs as they rolled out. By integrating the spectrometers with the oven controls, the processor was able to adjust the oven temperature according to the results and reach optimal moisture levels.

“They were selling by weight and we were adding moisture,” Lentz says. “The more moisture that was added, the lower the cost. They were able to come up with a very economical formula. Their return on investment began in the first three months.” Today, that company uses Brimrose spectrometers in all of their ovens.

On the agricultural side, Brimrose’s spectrometers have been part of the peanut seed sorting process to identify seeds with higher levels of oleic acid, which results in longer-lasting, better-tasting peanuts. “Traditionally peanut processors have had to use a device called a gas chromatograph to measure oleic acid content,” Lentz says. “That takes roughly 30 minutes per seed. Our device, which allows them to get results in seconds, cut months off their breeding cycles, meaning they could get new strains of peanuts out to farmers to breed and put into production processes ahead of schedule.”

Real-time measurements also make it easier for processors to comply with federal regulations. For example, Lentz says, “most products can only have a certain amount of moisture in them. If you increase the moisture beyond that, the product will spoil or grow mold before its sell-by date.” Fast spectrometer readings make it easier for food manufacturers to keep those moisture levels within sellable limits.

And as food safety regulations strengthen, real-time results are becoming critical to safe production and recall prevention. “Once again,” Lentz adds, “if it takes you an hour to do an analysis, that means you have an hour’s worth of product that you’re assuming is safe.” If it’s not, it results in a waste of product and production time, “or you’re running so many measurements, it's unreal.”

Durable, custom-designed devices

What makes Brimrose’s spectrometers unique compared to other NIR technologies is the AOTF crystal. “That’s what makes the spectrometer a solid-state device,” Lentz says. “Most other near-infrared and analysis devices have moving parts.” And with moving parts comes the risk of wear-and-tear and sensitivity to vibration. “Part of our production test is putting the unit on a paint shaker and rattling it for about an hour,” Lentz says. “And there are no problems whatsoever from that.”

Solid-state also makes a difference in speed and accuracy. “Since we're using the crystal and we use the radio frequency to select the different wavelengths, it’s a lot faster than a motor physically moving a mirror,” Lentz says. The crystal also allows for specificity within the whole spectral wavelength range, whereas other near-infrared spectrometers either lack that precision or can’t cover the full range. “If you're only specific to a certain extent, you're ignoring other data that could be relevant.”

To ensure customers have the best tool for the job, Brimrose builds all its units in its Maryland facility and customizes them depending on the application. “Whether it's over a conveyor, in a flow, or outside of an extrusion, we can integrate our spectrometer in any part of the process,” Mehta adds. It’s not an off-the-shelf solution, but one that requires working closely with the customer to tailor the unit or its accessories to their needs.

Brimrose is also continually researching and developing new technologies to better serve their clients. “That's something that we like to do,” Chaffee says. “We like to push the envelope and come up with ideas to help our customers be more productive and more successful.”

One of their most fun projects recently was to design a custom spectrometer to find water on the moon. “We're part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program that NASA launched,” Chaffee says. “We have a spectrometer with a specific mission to look for hydroxyl and other H2O contents on the surface of the moon. We're very excited about that.”

Brimrose will be returning to PROCESS EXPO as an exhibitor this fall. “The attendance of both exhibitors and attendees is great,” Mehta comments. Lentz adds, “Being able to talk to the people making the ovens that go into factories is just as valuable to us as talking to the people who already have an oven and need something to control it.”

They feel that PROCESS EXPO is also an excellent opportunity to showcase how their spectrometers can support safe and profitable production. “The large majority of our spectrometers are used in process control systems,” Chaffee says. “So we like being able to demonstrate our products.”

You can find Brimrose at Booth #870 at PROCESS EXPO to learn more about the benefits of its spectrometers and the technology behind them.

Used with permission from the Process Expo blog