Grocery chains are including more and more local and regional products on their shelves. In 2015, Hengstenberg, a well-known producer of cucumbers, cabbage, vinegar and mustard, installed a track-and-trace solution, featuring Cognex image-based code readers, in its incoming goods section to help verify the origin of locally grown food.
In 1876, Richard Alfried Hengstenberg founded the Esslinger Hengstenberg Company, a vinegar factory that produced mustard and pickles. The product line has since expanded to include sauerkraut, red cabbage and tomato products. The head office is located in Esslingen and the production and logistics operations are in Bad Friedrichshall. The company employs 150 people, 250 in high season, and has become well known for producing an extensive variety of pickled cucumbers.
Automated delivery processes
At the end of 2015, Hengstenberg’s Bad Friedrichshall facility automated its incoming goods process for cucumbers by installing Cognex image-based barcode readers to track individual deliveries. Retailers inspect products mainly for quality assurance, while consumers (Hengstenberg consumers in particular) demand verifiable proof that a "German cucumber" was actually and demonstrably grown and produced in Germany.
For these reasons, Hengstenberg installed several Cognex DataMan 302L barcode readers in its washing plant. They are an essential component of the track-and-trace system with which Hengstenberg can accurately detect the origin of classified cucumbers. Cucumbers only proceed to the next processing step after the producer and product data has been successfully verified. DataMan barcode readers read the one-dimensional (1-D) code on the label and send the information to a database where it is stored. With this process, Hengstenberg perfectly satisfies its customer requirements.
Thushyanthan Nadarasa, Hengstenberg Information Technology Manager in charge of the project, has been working for Hengstenberg for nearly 25 years. Regarding DataMan barcode readers, he stated: "As a brand manufacturer we had a clear idea of the quality we required of automation components. Therefore, we quite deliberately and rather quickly chose Cognex because this specialized company stands for the highest quality in barcode reading and image processing systems. Our collaboration has worked very well and the installation went smoothly and quickly."
Classifying and labeling before washing
The harvest season for gherkins begins in June and lasts until September. Since it is the only cucumber yield for a given year the facility must be extremely productive and efficient. As the cucumber harvest involves a lot of manual work, automation is a high priority for Hengstenberg.
Delivered cucumbers that have been freshly harvested from the fields of the region arrive for sorting via conveyors and blowers. Already sorted by size, diligent helpers work to classify the cucumbers by condition and form, and pass them on via funnels to the respective containers. The cucumbers are weighed and the data is transferred to the controller. The controller generates a label (containing all the product specific data such as origin, date, amount or class—for example 6/9 type cucumbers) which is applied to the container by a label dispenser.
After sorting, forklifts bring the cucumber containers in the washing plant, where they are cleaned for further processing. Here, four Cognex DataMan 302L barcode readers are installed on stable device columns mounted on the floor, protecting the readers from contact with the forklifts.
Reading codes and matching data
A trigger is activated when a loaded forklift approaches the tubs. The DataMan 302L barcode reader with red light illumination and a 10.3 mm liquid lens is set in continuous operation by the trigger signal (Continuous Mode). It reads the label on the side of the container and the data is passed to the plant controller and analyzed.
Following a positive match with the database, the driver unloads the cucumbers into the tub. This testing process only takes a few seconds and the result is documented, reliably preventing any mix up of batches. With the data verified and stored, Hengstenberg is now able to provide evidence regarding a product and its producer.
According to Thushyanthan Nadarasa, besides traceability, reliability is the most important factor: "Identification using the barcode readers and data matching with the controller have been stable from the beginning and read rates are approximately 99.9%. By integrating barcode readers in our logistics system and our data management, we can even trace back batches by year to the respective field or farmer."
Automation provides additional possibilities
As a result of automation, Hengstenberg is able to ensure transparency and traceability. Hengstenberg also expects to be able to reduce the manual labor required and improve the quality of processes even further.
Regarding introducing a new system, Thushyanthan Nadarasa stated: "Naturally, there were reservations around whether we needed it. But now there is a feeling of great relief and agreement that the decision made a year ago was the right thing to do. We were able to implement the project in just four months thanks to the excellent support from Cognex, and since then, there have been no faults in label reading."