The University of Georgia College of Engineering has been working to better understand pecan processing activities with the intention of improving upon the process to offer the pecan industry better end results in both quality and efficiency.
If I remember correctly the study is overseen by the USDA and has been funded for 5 years and could potentially be extended or increased in the future. The team of students and professors at the school are focussing on the major concerns as described by pecan industry participants, one of the major concerns that was voiced was the ability to shell out the most amount of pecan halves as possible.
The team working in the lab with the pecan processing equipment gave updates on 5 major areas of focus: Moisture, Cracking, Shelling, Imaging, and Industry 4.0 which is a group of technologies that would ultimately allow the Moisture, Cracking, Shelling and Imaging processes to communicate with each other in real time and make adjustments in realtime to improve the efficiency of the entire process and ultimately the end results of the pecans shelled.
In a conference room on the UGA campus in Athens the students gave us a brief presentation of each of the above categories, the ways in which they were isolating variables in the processes, and adjusting these variables to understand the effects each have on the respective processes.
The moisture team explained different ways that hot and cold temperatures affect the moisture content of the pecans as well as length of time in water and temperature of the water along with potential discoloration of the kernels as it relates to time and temperature of water baths before cracking.
The cracking team gave updates on the different styles of cracking a pecan and which styles might be more advantageous based on the previous variables of moisture. The shelling team gave their presentation on the variables they were studying in the shelling process as the pecans move further into the sheller and become more aggressively agitated, and of course house this works with the prior stages of processing.
The imaging team showed us how they are writing code to visually inspect the nut after cracking and determine what type of crack has been made based on 4 different styles of cracks that have defined. And finally we received the Industry 4.0 presentation where the students explained how using sensors and imaging in the production lines between each step the information could then be sent to the database where the computer could make adjustments in realtime to the machines in the next step of the process to optimize that machine to perform at peak efficiency whether that step be cracking, shelling, sorting, ect..
The USDA and Fort Valley State University also gave presentations of their work in the project concerning food safety through the post harvest process, we learn about various steps in the process where they have been working to increase food safety in the processing of pecans.
After lunch the team took all of us to the lab where they performed demonstrations of the work being done and how it will all work together in the field. The time in the lab was my favorite part of the day where they showed us each of the processes in action and how they were conducting the studies. After the trip to the lab, we finished out the afternoon with the researchers asking the audience questions to get a better perspective on current issues that they could address in the post harvest pecan processing activities. There was good dialogue in the audience as both shellers and equipment manufactures offered insight into what is happening in the field under real world conditions.
The UGA team, the USDA, and Fort Valley State University have done a great job and I look forward to seeing more of their research in the future. From this pecan farmer and many others across the world, Thank you!