LONDON, ENGLAND — Bühler Sortex can trace its roots back to 1947, when owners of a seed company were searching for a solution to the laborious practice of manually handpicking seeds.

The Gunsion’s Sortex Electronic Separator was born, with the ability to separate undesirable, discolored or varicolored products at a rate of 10 kg per hour. Seventy-five years later and capacity is now 10,000 kg per hour.

Now, the Bühler Group, of which Sortex is a part, has a hand in processing over 60% of the world’s grain and 30% of the world’s rice.

“In the last 75 years, our sorting capacity and accuracy, the number of application fields, and, consequently, the business, have all grown considerably,” said Melvyn Penna, product manager at Bühler.

Sortex sorters can sort through approximately 300 commodities within 13 different food and non-food segments. Having evolved from a UK-oriented company, Sortex now has a far-reaching global footprint with development teams and production sites all over the world. With its headquarters based in a newly developed office space in East London, Sortex is regarded as one of the most highly trusted technology providers for sorting solutions in the industry.

A 75-year history

In May 1947, the Balint brothers — owners of Gunson Seeds — established a firm in the UK called Beno Balint and Sons Limited. Dr. Okolicsanyi, a Hungarian scientist, and his assistant Herbert Fraenkel were given the assignment to find a technological solution for seed sorting. Shortly after, fabrication of machines began in the Gunson Seeds warehouse. 

The first G1 sorter could sort peas, beans, corn, small grains, coffee beans, nuts and other applications of similar size. 

“When we started out 75 years ago, sorting was not widely required,” Penna said. “There was a requirement for oil seeds and agri seeds, in other words, the high value crops. But sorting was not as widely spread as it is today.”  

In 2002, Sortex launched its Sortex Z machine. Since the time of its launch, approximately 6,000 machines have been sold across various countries.

“For over a decade, we were adding more and more features to keep the Sortex Z as up to date as possible, including shape recognition, shape sorting, infrared, modules, and InGaAs,” said Alexander Proemer, director head of business unit. “We then opened new markets in nuts, fruits, and vegetables industries with the launch of our Sortex F machine in 2014. With its stainless steel structure, the F machine is still the safest machine on the market in terms of food safety.”  

Food safety commitment

One of the main pillars behind Sortex’s success is its commitment to ensuring food safety.  

Food safety is vital. The World Health Organization states that eating contaminated food causes 420,000 deaths a year globally. Ensuring hygienic design at every stage of food processing can play a major role in reducing this risk. Not only does it help ensure food safety, it also increases productivity for processors by reducing cleaning and changeover time and the need for maintenance.

Most Sortex sorters today are built using the highest-grade stainless steel. Machines feature open access designs for quick-and-easy cleaning to prevent the build-up of harmful bacteria. Additionally, sloped surfaces ensure that any product residue runs off, further reducing the chance of product build-up. Full color and InGaAs cameras ensure absolute adherence to food safety regulations by removing all traces of foreign material (FM).

In addition to sustainability and food safety, Bühler maintains a strong focus on digitalization. Sortex in particular is hugely invested in making its customers Industry 4.0 ready. Indeed, the company’s adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and Internet of Things (IoT) has allowed processors to enjoy optimized business efficiency, reduction of waste, and increased capacity.

By turning machine and process data into valuable insights, Sortex sorters are one step closer to becoming fully autonomous. This is a direct response by Bühler to the growing global challenges of skilled labor shortages, increased uncertainties in product availability and quality, as well as upcoming stricter regulations on product traceability.

“Bühler has always been at the forefront of innovation and our research and development teams are working on tomorrow’s innovations today,” said Carmen Schlatter Broger, head of Business Area Digital Technologies.

Recent developments

Sortex has won seven Queen’s Awards since 1968 for its various technological developments, most recently in recognition of its pioneering research into camera technology used in sorting machines. The Queen’s Award for Enterprise is the highest UK award for British businesses that have excelled in the fields of international trade, innovation, or sustainable development.  

Its latest development is the MerlinAi, the new brain of Bühler’s Sortex optical sorting machines. Its advanced multi-layer sorting algorithms ensure a consistently higher yield for processors, with less good product lost in the reject stream.

Bühler Sortex commemorated its anniversary on June 9 with an internal celebration at its London office.

“I would like to thank the people who have made Sortex what it is today,” Broger said. “Our Sortex staff have weathered the challenging times of COVID-19, alongside the accompanying highs and lows of the business. Due to the passion, resilience, and endurance they’ve maintained, the brand is what it is today. We look forward to celebrating another 75 years of innovation and hope you will all join us in this exciting journey ahead.”