Monitoring Brix, salinity, viscosity, pH, and other readings during food processing is an important part of maintaining batch consistency and ensuring product quality. To learn about some of the innovations that are simplifying and improving the accuracy of those measurements, we spoke to Miyuki Clauer, marketing manager at ATAGO U.S.A.
Headquartered in Japan and with an office in Washington, ATAGO manufactures quality assurance instruments. All of ATAGO’s products are manufactured at their factory in Japan, and the company serves over 156 countries around the world
There’s a place for ATAGO’s instruments in the entire product journey, from farm to production to packaging. For example, both farmers and processors can use the refractometers to measure sugar content and determine produce quality. ATAGO also supplies a variety of other instruments to support quality assurance staff during batch consistency checks — polarimeters for measuring sugar quality, salt meters to assess salt content, viscosity meters to evaluate liquid thinness or thickness, and pH meters to check pH levels. “Our motto is that, as long as it's still liquid, it's measurable and applicable for consistency measurement,” Clauer says.
The potential of the Internet of Things (IoT)
As more food and beverage companies incorporate automation into their operations, the doors are opening for technological transformation. Clauer is excited about the IoT movement and the impact it will have on data collection and quality assurance.
She provides an example of the potential benefits using ATAGO’s primary product line, refractometers. A refractometer measures the amount of light that passes through a substance to determine its level of dissolved solids, like sugar. ATAGO has these available in handheld models for portable measurements with near-field communication (NFC) or Bluetooth capabilities and in-line systems using output methods such as RS-232 or 4-20mA for automated measurements. Linking these devices and digitally storing the data they collect can eliminate the operator error involved in handwritten record-keeping.
Additionally, in-line instruments reduce product waste by taking continuous measurements and immediately alerting QA staff of any irregularities. By contrast, an employee running tests once an hour could end up having to throw away an entire large batch if the problem isn’t caught quickly enough.
Digital measurement systems also provide worker safety and human resources benefits. “Depending on the environment, the operator may have to climb up to the top of a water tank to take a measurement,” Clauer says. “Potentially harmful liquid could come out of the spout.” With in-line systems, it’s no longer necessary to put employees at risk for measurement purposes. Not only will those employees be safer, but they’ll have more time for other tasks.
However, despite these advancements, some manufacturers are more comfortable with conventional measurement methods. “There's a little bit of a technological divide in terms of the analog user versus the digital user,” Clauer says.
One misconception is that analog devices are more durable than digital ones. However, Clauer explains, this isn’t true. In fact, in many cases, their digital unit, which has an IP65 rating, can sustain water and withstand drops better than analog instruments.
Analog devices are also more subjective because getting an exact measurement can be challenging. “You put the liquid on a little prism area that you look through like a telescope or a microscope. You have to look towards the sun so that you're allowing enough light to come through, and then you read the measurement off of a gauge.” A digital device, which doesn’t require excellent eyesight and leaves no room for human error, is both easier and more accurate.
New products for the industry and for consumers
ATAGO is in a constant state of innovation, developing new measurement products to meet the industry’s changing needs.
“Our goal is to release at least one new product each year,” Clauer says. Next in line is a PAL-pH, a pH meter without any exposed probes. “It has a flat sample stage that’s easy to clean, so it’s a good fit for the food industry.”
They’re also working on an non-destructive refractometer that can measure solid samples, such as produce. “Traditionally, when you measure something with a refractometer, you have to use juice, or it has to be in a liquid form,” Clauer says. “Now we have meters that you can just press against the fruit and get an instant measurement.”
ATAGO’s products aren’t just for food industry insiders. The company is in the process of adapting their instruments for consumer use. For example, the non-destructive refractometer is a tool the company hopes to eventually take to the consumer market. “Someday, you and I can carry one of these meters into the supermarket and use it to find a really sweet apple, without causing any harm to the product.”
At the end of the day, Clauer says, ATAGO is about manufacturing equipment that’s easy to read, operate, and clean, improving the quality of our food and our quality of life. “That's our goal overall as a company, to continue to work with the industry and walk side-by-side.”
ATAGO will be exhibiting for the first time at PROCESS EXPO this fall. “We've been attending a lot more trade shows,” Clauer says, “and we’re looking for the shows that are most applicable to us. PROCESS EXPO was mentioned several times throughout our conversations with some of our partners, who are also exhibiting. We heard great feedback from them, and that’s why we’ll be at the show.”
You can visit ATAGO at Booth #4560 during PROCESS EXPO to see the company’s refractometers and other tools in action.