A new brain for sorters

Merlin Ai – Innovation, not magic

Head of R&D Digital Technologies David Kinsella and Product Manager Melvyn Penna reveal the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the creation of Bühler’s latest engine for the newest versions of our color sorters – Merlin Ai. Learn how it responds to current issues such as the impacts of climate change, skilled labor shortages, and digitalization, and why it will be such an asset for food and non-food processors.

Simply put, Merlin Ai is the new brain of Bühler’s Sortex optical sorting machines, now exclusively available for the wheat and rye sector. As a future development, it will be rolled out across various other food and non-food segments including pulses, coffee, seeds, peanuts, grains, rice, tree nuts, oats, and plastics. As a pioneer in optical sorting, Bühler has built on decades of experience and the best of Swiss and British engineering know-how. At the forefront of optical sorting innovation, Bühler introduced infrared sorting to machines in the 1970s and artificial intelligence to optical sorters in the 1980s with the Sortex 9000 being the first machine to have microprocessor control. In the 2000s, 24/7 remote monitoring of sorters was launched with Anyware-Pro. The new Merlin Ai sorting engine is now set to push optical sorters to the next level of usability, performance, and product traceability.

Merlin Ai is essentially an all-new machine in terms of its hardware and electronics. It features new sorting algorithms for color detection, new camera technology, defect sizing, self-learning, tracking, calibration, and defect removal. “It allows the most complex of sorting applications to be accomplished with ease, enhancing the detection of foreign material (FM) and subtle defects while increasing product yield. It was developed with the customer user experience at the forefront of the program,” explains Melvyn Penna, Product Manager at Bühler. 


Merlin Ai was developed to elevate the usability and connectivity of the optical sorter using a new suite of algorithms and advanced learning techniques. This new sorting engine is the “next big thing” in optical sorting, according to Johannes Wick, CEO Grains & Food at Bühler. “Merlin Ai will enable the industry to move away from using sorters solely for quality control and will instead encourage processors to open up totally new applications for grading and qualifying raw materials in function of the composition of the material,” he explains.

Melvyn Penna, Product Manager at Bühler Melvyn Penna, Product Manager at Bühler Melvyn Penna, Product Manager at Bühler
Merlin Ai allows the most complex of sorting applications, enhancing the detection of foreign material and subtle defects while increasing product yield.

Melvyn Penna, Product Manager at Bühler

The concept for Merlin Ai was sparked following market research conversations between Bühler and its customers about what they would require optical sorters to do in the future. “We spent time in the mills speaking directly to millers about their most pressing pain points. We also spoke to our in-house Application Specialists to gauge what the market as a whole was in need of and what would be feasible to develop,” says David Kinsella, Head of R&D Digital Technologies at Bühler. The resounding response from customers was that they wanted more flexibility and simpler control over complex defects. Additionally, they desired an easy, user-centric design and the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) concepts. “With the development of Merlin Ai, we also wanted to be sure that we were responding to our customers’ most urgent needs in the face of Covid-19, the heightening effects of climate change, and shortages of skilled workers across the globe, and so on,” explains Penna.

From a performance point of view, while the Sortex A had already set the bar in the world of optical sorters, Bühler’s R&D team was still not satisfied. With the Merlin Ai sorting engine, they have managed to achieve an additional 50 percent reduction in yield losses. “This means less food waste and a minimized footprint for processors, which is much better for the planet,” Kinsella says.

Removing complex defects with ease

As time goes by, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent. There is growing uncertainty over harvest quality and availability in addition to the emergence of different types of contaminants and diseases resulting from changing weather conditions. “Fortunately, with Merlin Ai we can ensure superior reduction of insect damage, sunn pests, mycotoxins, deoxynivalenol (don), Fusarium (filamentous fungi) and other complex defects which are the same size and/or weight as the wheat kernels,” Penna says. “This is thanks to new LEDs with triple the amount of light, new full-color cameras combined with our new color detection and defect size processing algorithms to enhance defect detection.”

Merlin Ai effectively prevents the need for millers to downgrade or reduce the quality of their material, which would lower their profits. It also ensures adherence to food safety regulations which consumers are becoming increasingly aware of in the face of heightened health consciousness around the globe. “Merlin Ai enables small millers to purchase cheaper wheat that contains higher levels of input contamination. They can trust that ultimately they will not be compromising on quality as the optical sorter will clean the product to the highest standard and adhere to any requirements. This will result in greater pro-fit margins for the customer, as they will save a considerable amount of money on the input material,” Kinsella explains.

We’ve learned from the digital age that people expect high levels of usability. Merlin Ai will bring sorting machines to that high level. It’s intuitive.

David Kinsella, Head of R&D Digital Technologies at Bühler

With Merlin Ai, an engineer or skilled operator is not required for set-up or maintenance; it’s easy to set up and easy to use – no training or technical skills are needed. This attribute is even more important in the face of the current shortage of skilled workers across Europe and North America. Merlin Ai provides a layer of assurance for processors.

The simple user interface (UI) allows easy navigation and control of the machine, while default pre-set modes, and AI and machine learning capabilities enable quick set-up for new products. “We’ve learned from the digital age that people expect high levels of usability. Merlin Ai will bring sorting machines to that high level. It’s intuitive. Anyone can use the machine with confidence and achieve the results they need for that day. Similar to how we unbox a new laptop or phone and begin to intuitively navigate our way through the set-up without needing the manual, Merlin Ai has been developed to ensure the highest ease of use,” says Kinsella.

Enabling Industry 4.0 readiness, Merlin Ai’s connectivity to Bühler Insights delivers conversion of raw data from Sortex machines into KPIs and metrics on a single Bühler Insights dashboard. It is suitable for anyone in the factory to use and gain insights from the sorter. Instead of simply providing metrics such as ejector defect rates, Bühler can provide information that has real meaning such as input contamination, yield, total reject mass, uptime hours per day, yield per mode/recipe, and total accept mass. It enables downtime analysis, quality monitoring, and plant comparison.


“Invaluable data on defect removal and machine wear status is easily accessible for multiple stakeholders anytime. A user log featuring time-stamped mode/control changes is also available, as well as an alarm configuration for high ejection rate due to high input contamination or changes to incoming contamination of a particular defect type,” Penna says. “This will enable processors to quickly make decisions and take action and thereby save money by either reducing waste or increasing productivity.” Patterns and trends from historical data generated from Bühler Insights will also help millers around the world to maximize their uptime and future-proof their operations.

“Our Research & Development department is always looking to innovate, build on, and enhance existing technologies so we can be confident that we are responding to the most current issues in the industry,” Kinsella explains. “As such, our work is never done because we’re constantly being inspired and challenged by the world around us. Innovation is at the heart of Bühler and the development of Merlin Ai is proof of that.”

David Kinsella, Head of R&D Digital Technologies at Bühler David Kinsella, Head of R&D Digital Technologies at Bühler David Kinsella, Head of R&D Digital Technologies at Bühler
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