I have been fortunate to be invited to visit a number of factories. It is especially interesting to see the high-tech facilities. Aerospace as an example is always fascinating. But a big surprise for me was a visit to the opening of a potato processing plant. Manitoba has an important food-processing industry. This is not surprising being part of the breadbasket of North America. We grow potatoes. Really excellent potatoes. Some of the best if not the best potatoes in the world. Idaho – forget it, Prince Edward Island, don’t make me laugh.
But seriously, Manitoba potatoes are very good and they apparently make excellent french fries. At one point, as I understand it, we were making all the french fries sold in McDonald’s in Chicago. Have you seen the people of Chicago? Believe me they consume a lot of french fries.
I was invited to the opening of a french fry plant. Frankly, I went out of duty. I mean, next to a plant making components for the Dreamliner, a french fry plant didn’t sound too fascinating. I was wrong. Yes, I admit it, I was wrong. Remember this was several years ago, it hasn’t happened again.
This is what I remember seeing in this plant. I am not giving away company secrets, we weren’t required to sign any non-disclosure agreements or anything like that. But I was blown away by this plant – almost literally.
The plant only accepted potatoes of a certain size and quality. Once they had passed inspection they were sent on a conveyor, peeled and sliced into french-fry (chip) shapes. This happened very quickly and the conveyors moved so quickly it was hard to see the end of one chip from the beginning of the next. I’m going to use the English chip from now on it saves time.
The lengths of potato were shaken into several lines so they all faced the same direction. Each line of fast-moving chips passed under a sensor which apparently could detect any blemishes. The sensor recorded which chip had the blemish and whether it was on the front middle or end of the chip.
The chips came roaring up a ramp and flew in lines into the air. All the approved chips were allowed to follow their natural arc and fall onto the conveyor below and a little in front of where they had started their flight, where they continued for the next stage of processing.
Any chips that the sensor had tagged as blemished received a small puff of air from above them as they flew by. This puff of air redirected their flight course and they landed on a lower conveyor. The sensors then knew where this chip was blemished and employed the cutting machine to cut out the offending part.
All this happened in a blur of movement. I was speechless.
I had no idea of the ingenuity and technological invention used to process the lowly potato. It leaves me to wonder about so many what ifs.