The machine that hears what’s not wanted

The Coravel is a high-end sorting machine manufactured by Helms Technologie, Ahrensburg. Developed 23 years ago by Dr. Dirk Helms, an engineer from Ahrensburg near Hamburg, Germany, the machine is still standard equipment in many companies today. Axel Breuer talked to Ulrike Helms, the daughter of the company founder, who has been running the business for three years. Helms focuses on growth.

Did you know from the start that you would run the family business one day?

No, I didn’t really expect that. I first worked in a trading company in Hamburg and later in a consulting firm. In my late twenties I studied Entrepreneurship in Edinburgh, because I’ve always admired my father’s life as an entrepreneur and dreamed of being an entrepreneur myself.

After this second degree my father offered me a job in the family business. I’ve been working for my father for three years and it’s a lot of fun. I see a market for our machines and thus a future for the company. It is an exciting market that will continue to grow in the near future.

How was the “Coravel” developed and how will it continue?

About 20 years ago, the Ferrero company approached my father because they were looking for a solution to certain quality problems. The main focus was on residues from shells in chocolate products. And the solution developed by my father is still in use in many countries today, and the accuracy of certain processes is unmatched by others to date. Today, we have a very young and innovative team and see excellent opportunities for further innovations based on our past developments.

What are the benefits of Coravel compared to other sorting machines?

The machine combines three processes in one compact unit: air sifting for light foreign material such as dust, nails, hair and residues of jute bags – everything that is unwanted in production. Then a screening unit with slotted screens removes elongated foreign bodies such as matches. Other systems have perforated screens, which makes it difficult or impossible to sort out elongated foreign bodies. The third element – and this is actually new – is ultrasound detection, which measures the surface hardness of the products. The Coravel “hears” when a perfect nut is passing over the track. Foreign bodies such as stones, shells, glass, nails or shell residues are detected and eliminated after their acoustic fingerprint. When passing over the track, the nuts rotate until each surface of the round nut has been examined once. Such an “acoustic 360° image” is much more difficult to achieve visually. Especially for hazelnuts, optical sorting often reaches its limits because the shell and the kernel have the same color. In optical sorting systems, foreign objects must be individually identified and programmed as “bad” in advance. This process is not necessary for ultrasound inspection. Through auto-calibration, the machine learns how the good kernels “sound” and knows that everything else is “bad”. The Coravel can sort different nut kernels – and there is no need for a separate program. All you need are some “good” nuts. In just three minutes, the machine learns the “sound” of good nuts. Various algorithms are used here. Foreign bodies are detected by their “false sound” and shot out of the machine.

How did your father come up with an acoustic system?

Hazelnut shell residues are not only a challenge for optical systems, even x-rays are not helpful. To date, ultrasound is still unique in its accuracy.

What is a typical Helms customer and why do they buy the machine?

Companies such as Ferrero or Nestlè have been our customers for decades – after all, Ferrero has commissioned the machine. These companies use all kinds of equipment and at the very end of the sorting process our Coravel is used and still finds foreign bodies in the products. The Coravel can find one last piece of shell residue in one ton of nuts, for example one million hazelnuts. And it is amazing how small and light the foreign body can be. This gives the producers a high level of quality assurance, because the Coravel can find even foreign bodies hard to recognize. The machine can be used for hazelnuts, pistachios, macadamias, cashews, peanuts and almonds – raw and roasted. However, there are also customers who use the machine to sort apricot kernels for the production of persipan and chocolate nibs, an intermediate product in chocolate production. Our machine basically sorts all dry products.

The Coravel is perfect for any company that is no longer satisfied with 5 %0 or more foreign bodies achieved by other sorting techniques. These customers process pre-cleaned products and use our machine at the end of the production chain to detect and eliminate the remaining 4-5 %0. This lowers the complaint rate and strengthens their good reputation for quality. If you convert a quality gain of 4-5 %0 into sales, the purchase of a Coravel can be amortized after 6-8 months.

Some customers in the nuts trade even request that the sorting process is performed with our machine. Buyers of nuts require their pre-processing suppliers to clean the nuts with the Coravel.

What is the structure of your company and where do you want to go?

We have only few permanent employees and a large staff of freelancers and experts, who join us depending on the order situation. This means that we can handle everything from small to large orders. We now want to do more business worldwide, so that other producers can also benefit from the advantages of Coravel. This applies not only to the typical recipient countries in Europe, but also to the countries of origin of nuts. The machine is well suited for this application because no software experts or other highly skilled staff is needed to operate the system. Compared to optical systems, the machine is easy to clean. For example, there are no camera lenses that need to be cleaned permanently.

The machine is compact and modular and can be integrated into the production chain within a small space. Auto-calibration ensures that the sorting process automatically adapts to the products, thus simplifying product changes. It is also robust and requires little maintenance. Remote diagnosis via internet is possible on request. We have many customers who only need service once in three years. As an engineering company we are also happy to solve new problems, we plan production optimization and develop tailor-made systems.