Most consumers are probably unaware of this, but the journey of many of the food products found in supermarkets includes going through a metal detector at the facilities where they are produced. This takes place when the product is ready and packaged, and the objective is to verify the existence of particles of parts, screws or other metal contaminants in the raw materials. So a package of sliced bread, of cookies, of instant soup, or a box of laundry soap, for example, are examined to detect the presence of undesirable metal “ingredients.” Many of these machines in Brazil are manufactured by Brapenta, a company from the State of São Paulo. The firm is about to launch some innovative equipment for this niche in the Brazilian market. The machine uses X-rays not only to identify metals, but also to identify stones, plastic and glass, or anything else that does not comply with typical density standards, such as a tiny piece of bone in a hamburger. The inconvenient material, measuring up to one millimeter, can be seen and the product is removed before it leaves the factory. Brapenta’s new model, called Spectra, is equipped with components prepared to make the equipment less expensive and more functional. “It will cost between R$ 80 and R$ 100 thousand, with taxes, while the similar imported equipment costs between R$ 150 and R$ 200 thousand, or more, plus taxes,” says electronic engineer Martín Izarra, the company’s president-director.
The importance of the project transcends the benefits that the new equipment will provide to Brazilian industry and to the company itself, because it is an example of the synergy between research institutes, companies and the Brapent R&D lab. “We have allies in the commercial and the technological fields, because innovation means creating a network of partners,” says Izarra, who is also a director of Anpei, the National Research, Development and Engineering Association of Innovative Companies.
Conceived in 2003, the project materialized in the same year, when its technical feasibility was approved at the Integrated Systems Laboratory of the Polytechnic Institute at the University of São Paulo. “This is when we realized that the idea was feasible,” says Izarra. “We developed the project on our own, working with a technology that was unknown to us.” The upgrading involved migrating from the electromagnetic field – the technology employed by Brapenta thus far – and switching to X-ray technology; the latter technology is the same used to detect metals at the entrance of banks or prisons, a product that the company also produces, though on a smaller scale. The challenge in using X-rays is generating and controlling this kind of radiation. In addition to this, the manufacturers had to deal with the feasibility of a number of added elements for the equipment to work. The equipment had to read the product as if it were a scanner, transforming the X-rays into electric signals and then converting the result into light visible on a screen; in addition, the equipment had to be equipped with software and control panels.
The added elements essential to carry out the project included scintillators, sensors comprised of one crystal of cesium iodide, in this case. So far, the scintillators have been imported from Japan and France, at a high cost and after lengthy negotiations, because this product can be used in nuclear applications to measure radiation; the countries that have this technology make it difficult to export it. To have a less expensive, Brazilian-made product, the company entered into an exchange agreement with the Ipen, Institute of Energy and Nuclear Research, to produce the scintillators. Brapenta’s background history already includes a sound technological partnership with ITA, the Technological Institute of Aeronautics; the agreement was signed in 2004 for the development of algorithms, a set of mathematical solutions designed to deal with a specific problem in another machine manufactured by the enterprise. This equipment measures the weight of the products as they go by on a conveyor belt at a speed of two meters per second. The equipment checks whether the products are heavier or lighter than the weight specified on the packaging. Inpe, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, is another long-time Brapenta partner. The company’s equipment undergoes electronic interference tests at the Inpe Testing and Integration Laboratory.
“All our partnerships are learning experiences, but our partners also learn from us,” says Izarra. In the case of the scintillators produced at Ipen, they were not being used for industrial equipment. “At Ipen, we use crystal growth technology for academic purposes and for X-ray or gamma ray detectors,” says Carlos Henrique de Mesquita, a retired researcher from Ipen who is coordinating a project for Brapenta under FAPESP’s Innovative Research for Small Businesses (Pipe) program. “These sensors convert the radiation of X-rays into light photons that activate other sensors called photo diodes that in turn convert the photons into electric signals and then into images prepared by a software program,” he explains. In Mesquita’s opinion, the project conducted at Ipen will reduce the price of the scintillators by 30%.
When Mesquita concludes the project at the beginning of the year’s second half, Brapenta will be able to buy the scintillators from Ipen, in the same manner that the institute produces and provides pharmaceutical products for use in nuclear medicine procedures. “One of the alternatives is to set up a company to produce scintillators or for Brapenta itself to manufacture them,” says Mesquita. The photo diodes are normally purchased in the market.
Brapenta partners with Kognitus to process the images generated by the scintillators; Kognitus is installed at the company incubator of Coppe, the Coordinating Office of Post-Graduate Programs in Engineering, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Created at the Computer Science Department of the university’s Mathematics Institute, the company develops product analysis and pattern recognition software. Inovax is another company also incubated at Coppe; also partnering with Brapenta, it is responsible for the software of the equipment’s control panel; other partners include JR Informática, a company involved in the digital processing of signals, based in the city of São José dos Campos, in São Paulo, and Gauss, based in the city of Florianópolis, in the state of Santa Catarina, a firm that developed high voltage resistance for the thick film technology.
Because of all these partnership agreeements, the company’s R&D department, staffed by three engineers, is responsible for the development of the X-ray generator, the systems integration, and the software that controls all the equipment. “Our cost reduction strategy means the development of all parts of the system through partnerships, because all the other manufacturers simply purchase the parts and assemble them, and this is very expensive,” says Izarra. He believes that he will be able to export the Spectra within two years. Scheduled for launching by the end of the year, the equipment will be installed for roughly three months free of charge at the partner companies, which are already clients and intend to buy the new machine. Investments in the products’ R&D will total R$ 2.5 million by 2010. Of this amount, roughly 40% will be provided by the company itself, and the rest will be funded by agencies such FAPESP, under the Pipe program, and the Projects and Studies Financing Agency (Finep) of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the National Scientific and Technological Council (CNPq), with non-refundable resources, and tax breaks established by the Information Technology Law.
Izarra believes that the equipment will also be used by other industries besides the food or housecleaning products industries. Spectra can be used in the production line of pharmaceuticals to detect whether blister packaging (the aluminum packaging for pills) contains all the pills and whether any pill is damaged. The machine can be used by the beverage industry to check the level of liquid in beer and soft drink cans.
Another possibility is for the equipment to be used with another configuration at airports, to check luggage. “One of the first queries regarding this kind of X-ray equipped machine came from Infraero, the Brazilian Airport Infrastructure Company, because the machines currently used for this end are imported and their maintenance is expensive,” says Izarra. In this case, an operator has to be at hand to view the inside of the luggage, whereas in the case of the industrial machine this is unnecessary, because the machine automatically separates products in which something was detected. The same configuration for the airport can be used at prison facilities, to inspect inmates and visitors.
The company, whose facilities are located in the neighborhood of Santo Amaro, in the city of São Paulo, employs 65 people and exports its products to 28 countries, which include the United States, Spain, Iran, Egypt, Angola and South Africa. These countries import the products directly or through intermediaries that install the entire set of machines and equipment at a plant, for example. The company also has representatives in Latin American countries. In addition to metal detectors for the food products industry, the company exports inspection equipment for the mining industry, used to check raw materials for cement, because tiny bits of metal can ruin the cement mills.
The history of Brapenta started when Martín Izarra prepared a design for carbon dioxide (C O2) metering in big tanks by electronic means, when he was a graduate student in the electrical engineering course in Argentina, his native country. “The company, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, which manufactures parts for nuclear reactors and chemical products, filed the patent and paid me enough to buy a car; it also hired me. I started working in their R&D department and even did so in the United States,” Izarra recalls. “But I went through Rio de Janeiro and decided to stay. I had gone on vacation and came to study in Brazil. I adopted the country and became a Brazilian citizen.”
In São Paulo, Izarra worked as a project manager for AEG Sistemas, a German industrial automation company. Soon thereafter, he decided to open a subsidiary of the Penta da Argentina company in Brazil. With one of the five partners of the Argentine company, he opened up Brapenta in São Paulo in 1979. The first product was a metal detector for the mining industry. “But three years later, the technology was already obsolete. Innovations move incredibly fast, so I decided to buy my partner out and focus on the development of our own technologies to keep up with the speed of technological development. This was – and still is – a learning process.”
1. Development of CSL(TI) crystal and plastic scintillator for the purpose of real time inspection with X-rays in Brazilian-made equipment (nº 07/51496-5); Type Innovative Research Program for Small Businesses (Pipe); Coordinator Carlos Henrique de Mesquita – Ipen/Brapenta; Investment R$ 94,018.00 (FAPESP)
2. Inspection system with X-rays and equipment innovation for safe food products; Type Financial Subvention Program for Companies; Coordinator Martín Izarra – Brapenta; Investment R$ 1,283,160.00 (FINEP)
3. Inspection system with X-rays; Type Human Resources Training Program (Rhae Innovation); Coordinator Alberto Suárez Velasco e Martín Izarra – Brapenta; nvestment R$ 257,099.52 (CNPq)