This blog post is a translation of an original Bloovi article in Dutch that was originally posted here.
Today Qcify is a world leader in the automated quality control of nuts and dried fruit, but the seed was planted in 2006 at the sorting technology company where CEO Raf Peeters worked as customer service technician. He reasoned that the vision technology they were using for sorting could also be used for quality control. Since they started up in 2005 Qcify has focused on the US and Australia, but since last year the company has also been active in the European market. “We still have a lot of potential, so world domination is really the goal.”
Before we jump into the interview we should clarify: we called Peeters in Silicon Valley, where it is 7 a.m. for him, but the majority of the Qcify team works in Herentals, Belgium. Why is this time zone straddling? “It’s something that grew historically,” explains the CEO. “Visys, the sorting technology company I worked for, was based in Belgium, but decided in 2010 to also set up an office in the US.
Especially since Visys was already focusing on nuts and dried fruit, around which a lot of know-how is focused in California. This led to my move to Silicon Valley in 2010, and two years later almost 50 percent of our turnover was being generated in California. In 2013 Visys was sold to an American company, and I stayed on to ensure a smooth transition. When that wrapped up, it was a perfect time to start up Qcify – so I never ended up using my return ticket to Belgium (laughs).”
Human hand pickers
Since Peeters had already built up a lot of contacts in the nuts and dried fruit sector, he decided to stick to that sector with Qcify. But to do what exactly? “Quality control, because this is a process that has never really attracted much interest: companies focused too much on improving their big production lines. So there were opportunities there.
We started with pure quality control via a lab sampling machine, where a customer could have a sample checked for the quality level required by US food legislation. But more and more we got asked whether we could also analyze larger product flows. As a result, based on our line monitoring expertise at Visys, our team developed a box that can go over a specific line and analyze quantities from 500 kilos to 1 ton per hour, instead of a sample of 500 grams.
Our box was able to very easily replace human hand pickers, and it certainly gained enormous traction since COVID - so you can really see that as an accelerator of Qcify. You can view our box as the hand picker of the future. Not only because of the technology, but also because every company anywhere in the world - from Herentals to Australia - has issues finding staff. And especially in the food sector, which is very human intensive. COVID and staff shortages have forced us to face the facts: automation is the only solution. That or going out of business, but that is of course never the answer.”
“Our mission is also to remove human error from the process, although we don’t pretend that our solutions are 100% error-free: if you hear someone say that, you can assume it’s just sales bullshit (laughs).
Especially if you work in a sector with natural products. If you produce metal nails and screws for example, you know exactly what they should look like or should look like. With almonds you also have an ideal image, but nature itself ultimately decides what they will look like. You have to incorporate all that into your models, making perfection almost impossible to attain. That being said, unlike a human, a machine will never suffer from the effect of a sleepless night – so we can eliminate some factors that often contribute to errors.
Above all we provide the customer with better performance and much more consistency. And to be clear: perfection will always remain our ambition, because there is a lot of instability in the world – just look at energy prices or the war in Ukraine – which we would like to compensate for a little bit with the most robust solution possible. That’s why there is still a lot of investment happening in the sector in solutions like ours, which honestly surprised me.”
Don't shoot everything that moves
Speaking of those natural products that the company focuses on with its box: for the time being, Qcify's focus remains on nuts and dried fruit. “I’ve learned from experience that as a company you have to focus, and not shoot at everything that moves. Otherwise at some point you’ll end up with an almond machine in Argentina, a hazelnut machine in Azerbaijan and a raisin machine in South Africa and your team will do nothing but flit around the world, totally unfocused.
Besides, that way you might develop several different applications, but you won’t become a leader in any of them. The only zooming out I’ll give in to is expanding the type of nuts we cover, if the development of our technology allows for it.
In short: we actually want to become really strong in the nut and dried fruit sector, and then replicate that technology in other product groups and markets. And we are slowly getting to that phase. That is why we entered the European market last year, and we’re now also looking at the possibilities in Africa and South America. Given the potential of our solution, I can safely say that world domination is our ambition. We are already doubling our turnover every year.”
Developed especially for me
Qcify's great asset is user-friendliness, because the service technicians and sales people who work there usually have a lot of experience in the customer-facing side of the food industry. “I thought it was very important that they were familiar with that side of things, because it made them all the more able to offer solutions,” says Peeters.
“For our engineers who actually develop the devices, that was less of a must: for them I preferred expertise in AI, deep learning or software architecture. This combination of industry knowledge and new technology know-how was ideal for arriving at solutions that the customer needs. In close consultation and cooperation with the customer, of course: I don't want to develop solutions and only then see who sales people can sell them to. I want our customers to feel, ‘Qcify developed this especially for me’. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that every machine is customized: we still operate in a sector based on mass production.
I do believe very strongly in looking at what the problems are for all companies that are active in a certain sector, and coming up with solutions based on that, that then sell themselves. That’s why we work as closely as possible with customers, and we have an employee who has moved to Spain specifically to monitor our European market entry there.”
Simple user interface
Solutions that, as we said, are user-friendly. “To put it succinctly: we should be able to explain the operation of the customer-facing side of our machines to a three-year-old, in a matter of speaking. Even machines working with AI, data flows, deep learning or complicated software architecture. Certainly within the food sector we are very advanced in terms of technology, and the backend should be as complicated as possible as far as I'm concerned. But the most important thing is that the customer can work with it, and we make that happen: when we provide training on a new machine, it literally takes five minutes.”
“I also find that very important: as a service technician, I placed installations where I had to train the customers for three days – so you knew that the moment you left the factory, it was only going to go downhill. The simpler the user interface, the better.”
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