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New Mexico State University

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M-TEC creates chile-sorting machine that helps New Mexico growers and processors

The Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) at New Mexico State University has teamed up with the New Mexico Chile Task force in designing and building new machinery that is critical to the chile industry.

Ryan Herbon, a graduate student and M-TEC engineer, designed, engineered and prototyped the chile-sorting machine. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The first of three major initiatives to be completed is a chile-sorting machine that removes debris from mechanically harvested red chile. The other two projects are a thinning machine and a de-stemmer.

To remain viable in today's global agricultural trade environment, the chile industry is faced with the need to substantially cut production costs. Otherwise less expensive imports will crowd out domestically grown chile.

With funding from M-TEC and the Chile Task Force, NMSU graduate student and M-TEC engineer Ryan Herbon designed, engineered and prototyped a chile-sorting machine that could help modernize the commercial chile industry and help New Mexico farmers be more competitive.

"The pressure from foreign imports is still high," said Rich Phillips, a project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service and a project coordinator with the Chile Task Force. "Industry leaders believe that developing an effective way to clean debris from machine harvested chile is the single most important step in staying ahead of the competition."

Though growers have been attempting to make the transition to mechanical harvesting for years, they are being held up because of introduced debris during the harvesting process.

"When harvesting, the machines pull leaves, sticks and plants along with the chile," said Herbon. "If the (debris) stays in, it degrades the quality of the chile and can ruin real expensive processing plant equipment."

The chile-sorting machine has a multi-stage, full scale cleaning process.

"Our concentration was on cleaning out sticks the size of pods that current equipment doesn't remove," he said. "We have an adjustable gap to take long sticks out and a color sorter to take sticks of the same size or smaller than a pod out."

The adjustable gap stage is 83 percent efficient, while the color sorter is 92 percent. The color sorter has a row of sensors that sense the color of material on the belt. Finger-like contraptions then "kick-off" the chile pods.

The chile industry in Dona Ana, Luna and Hidalgo counties generates $418 million annually in economic activity. That includes 10,000 to 15,000 part-time harvesting jobs and 5,322 permanent jobs created directly in the chile industry and indirectly in other business sectors.

The estimated cost of the machine is $50,000 and processors would save about $93,000 a year for each machine implemented, Herbon said.

The machine, which is still in the patent process, will reduce labor costs by decreasing the number of hand laborers from 20 to two.

"Forty to sixty percent of cost in the chile industry is caught up in labor," he said.

M-TEC, housed in the College of Engineering, is an outreach program chartered to provide engineering assistance to businesses in New Mexico to aid in economic development.

"The M-TEC program has been successful at solving industry-related projects using students, staff and facilities in the College of Engineering," said Anthony Hyde, the director of M-TEC. "Engineering students working on these projects have a wonderful opportunity to gain valuable experience."

The Chile Task Force, coordinated by the NMSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics, is a consortium with members from the university, industry and government agencies. It was created in 1998 to identify and implement ways to keep chile pepper production profitable in New Mexico. In addition to its partnership with M-TEC, the Task Force has forged partnerships with Sandia National Laboratories, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the ARS Southwestern Cotton Ginning Laboratory to work on other aspects of industry mechanization.