Thursday, December 7, 2023

New tech boosts pack house output

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While much has been made of the prospects for robots harvesting kiwifruit and other orchards, one packing company has invested heavily this season in robotic technology in the pack house. Apata Group chief executive Stuart Weston outlined to Richard Rennie some of the smarts behind the country’s most robotised pack house, and what it heralds for the industry.
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This year’s kiwifruit harvest is enduring another season with dire predictions of labour shortages coming at least partly true. 

Most processing companies report an ongoing need for more staff, both pickers and in pack houses. 

It is an issue unlikely to go away as the sector’s planted area continues to grow. An extra 750 canopy hectares a year of SunGold is accompanying the transition from Green to Gold fruit, which is also more prolific.

“There are two schools of thought around automation in terms of using it in orchards for harvesting or in pack houses.” Apata Group chief executive Stuart Weston says.

“Estimates are we will need about another 6000 people in the coming years and they simply are not there to get and even if we could we have the challenge of where they would stay.”

Pack houses need 2.5 people for each picker in the field. The Apata pack house employs 500 people over two shifts at the season peak.

“So, for us it’s a case of focusing on what we can do on the floor and re-allocating that finite resource of people to picking,” Weston said.

Apata’s Mends Lane pack house east of Te Puke has had a multi-million-dollar refit in the past three years as the company invests in tech, making it something of a test bed for commissioning robotic technology. 

At the centre of technology are two high-speed grading and sorting machines made by French fruit-processing company Maf Roda.

Weston likens the two machines to a Holden Commodore HSV running alongside a Subaru Impreza. 

The Holden copes well with clear runs of good-quality fruit while the Subaru has more smarts to handle the anomalies in fruit size and quality.

“But running at top speed they can do 7000 trays an hour, each.” 

The technology helping those machines go so fast includes cutting-edge digital camera technology. With six cameras on each fruit-sorting lane the rotated fruit is photographed 30 times, across a dozen colour spectra. 

Different light spectra detect different quality parameters including drymatter, brix level and fruit colour using near infra-red technology, a colour spectrum close to infra-red but still invisible to the naked eye.

“Algorithms can then calculate based on the behaviour of those light spectra hitting the fruit, what grade that fruit is.” 

The smart tech has allowed Apata to tune up as closely as possible on its objective to deliver the maximum number of class one fruit returns to its growers to within a 5% tolerance rate.  

Once scanned, 60 fruit a second are weighed 30 times to an accuracy of a tenth of a gram then split off by size.

While the machines will sort to a point, the human element comes in to pull the marginal fruit through manual sorting, with the fruit clearly high-grade passing through automatically.

But it has been in the past four weeks the plant has taken on a whole new level of automation beyond initial sorting. 

It now has the time consuming jobs of box lining, filling and sealing also robotised.

Apata’s operations general manager Hans Van Leeuwen said one of the most time consuming tasks in packing is the single layer or tray packs. They are used to hold 24-34 kiwifruit, depending on size. 

The robotic packer is a NZ first for the industry and packs 22 trays a minute compared to three for the company’s best human packers.

Robotic box fillers have also been installed and work on filling and leveling 10kg bulk boxes, sealing and labelling with traceability ID, enabling retailers to trace back to the exact block in a specific orchard the fruit came from.

“The retailer can also find out what fertiliser and sprays were applied, when it was picked, what truck shipped it and what ship it was loaded onto. It is 100% traceable,” Weston said.

Van Leeuwen said the technology had to deliver higher grading and packing speeds but in the limited space a pack house can offer.

“And even after only a couple of weeks these machines are exceeding our expectations. 

“The advances include what may appear to be quite small improvements, like new labelling technology that consistently places bar code ID exact, every time, something staff always struggle with.”

Weston said the pack house realistically gets 18 hours a day worth of shifts.

“Ultimately, I would far rather see us with this facility running 24/7 rather than entertain the idea of building a completely new pack house. This pack house is something of a beta test ground for our new technology.” 

He estimates once robotics enables a pack house to operate 24 hours there are productivity gains of 50% possible from the same footprint.

He also dispelled any likelihood there will be fewer jobs in coming years.

“It will simply be a case of redeploying our limited manpower from the pack house to the orchards for picking.

“The greatest issue for the sector is having enough people and robotic automation in pack houses is a smart choice to make from three main areas of capital expenditure we have, the other two being worker accommodation and coolstores.”

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