Plant Case History: Pasta Montana Perfects its Pasta

April 29, 2014
An optical sorter ensures zero defects in pasta line.

Situated in the heart of Montana’s “Golden Triangle,” where wheat-growing conditions are superb, Pasta Montana manufactures a line of over 50 dry pastas ranging from petite shells to fettuccine. The company's pledge to customer satisfaction drives them to use the most advanced technology to craft fine pasta from pure ingredients.

“As a pasta manufacturer for Japanese customers that accept zero defects, we need to ensure the quality of our product. Of course, our domestic customers appreciate this too,” says Claude Smith, plant manager. “We wanted to add a quality control step that was as close to certain as we could get. We were looking for a way to guarantee perfect pasta. That’s what drove this project. To the best of my knowledge, we are the first pasta manufacturer in the U.S. to install an optical sorter.”

Pasta Montana considered multiple suppliers and decided to work with Key Technology, Walla Walla, Wash., to customize a sorter and the intelligent software for this new application.

The company selected Key’s Optyx 3785, which features cameras and lasers to detect and remove foreign material (FM) and defects from the line that handles small pastas such as penne, elbows, shells and corkscrews.

To augment the sorter, Key customized an Iso-Flo scalping shaker to remove fines as well as under- and over-size objects before the sorter, plus an additional Iso-Flo shaker that incorporates a unique air flow system to remove lightweight material. An Iso-Flo scale feed shaker was also installed on the line above the combination weigher to improve the efficiency of the bagger. This integrated system was installed in July 2013.

“Prior to Optyx, we relied on mechanical screening and metal detection as well as QC checks. When we ran products for some of our Japanese customers, we’d slow the line down to half-speed and add four people assigned to watch the product and achieve 100 percent inspection,” says Adam Hatch, maintenance tech class A at Pasta Montana. “Now, with the sorter, we can run at full speed and we’ve eliminated the human error that comes with manual inspection. We’ve increased productivity by 20 percent on that line and we’re better able to ensure the quality of our product.”

Digital sorters like Optyx are popular on lines processing harvested foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, potato products and more. Adapting the technology for a new application, such as pasta, required some customization.

“I’ve had experience with Key at a number of other facilities. They are head-and-shoulders above when it comes to service, which is why we chose them for this project. As we got deeper into it and Key continued to modify things for us, we ended up with an integrated system that is steps ahead of what the others offered,” says Smith.

“We want to identify and remove everything that doesn’t belong, including co-mingled product from another run, off-color product, misshapen product and of course, any foreign material,” says Amanda Carpenter, floating operator at Pasta Montana. “We use shape sorting for every product we run so we can catch an elbow pasta if we’re running penne, and double our protection. The scalper upstream of the sorter does a great job giving the sorter clean product.”

Pasta Montana’s Optyx features color cameras and a laser, sorting product on a 24-in. wide belt to achieve 100 percent inspection with a maximum capacity of 4.5 tons of pasta per hour. The cameras recognize color, size and shape to detect co-mingled product and a variety of defects. The lasers recognize differences in structural properties for FM detection, even when the FM is the same color as good product, which is especially important when Pasta Montana is running tri-colored pasta.

“This entire project was geared to producing perfect pasta, and gentle product handling was an important part of that. We eliminated breakage points and lowered elevation drops. The discharge of the sorter was a concern, so Key worked to decelerate the product there,” says Smith.

Carpenter adds, “Now, we have much less breakage than before and less waste. Further down the line, with the less breakage, the bagging operation becomes much more efficient.”

“Since we installed Optyx, we’ve not had a single customer complaint,” concludes Smith. “And we’ve made it easier for our people to package the best pasta.”

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