Could new technology help fruit producers solve a long-standing conundrum?
THE packing of netted citrus fruits into trays, crates and cartons is particularly prone to problems.
It doesn’t take much to damage soft products such as oranges and apples so it’s inevitable that a certain amount will be a little bruised and battered by the time they reach the end of the line.
However, new technology could be about to solve an issue that has troubled the industry for years.
A fully automated tray loading machine from Pacepacker Services is being hailed by the company as the answer to fruit producers’ prayers.
The new patented technology was devised in response to a request made by a food process trouble shooting consultant, working for one of the UK’s leading importers and packers of fruits, who approached Pacepacker to design and manufacture a system which would almost entirely eliminate product waste and increase netted fruit packing throughput.
The FlexaPac, which the firm claims can pack in excess of 60 nets of fruit per minute, replaces the current labour intensive approach of loading netted products into crates, trays and cartons by hand via a rotary table.
Not only is the rotary table process costly due to high staffing requirements, bags of fruit are often wasted when packers accidentally drop the products, or they are bruised when the handler loads them into a tray resulting in costly penalties charged by the retailer.
This challenge prompted independent food production consultant Trefor Mason, who redesigns food manufacturing processes to achieve a leaner way of working, to approach Pacepacker to design an automated solution which would eliminate waste and increase line throughput.
Mason explains: “Having worked with many fruit packers and suppliers it was apparent that the packing of the netted fruits into trays was an area which required a complete overhaul.
Not only will this machine increase throughput, it should eliminate waste and reduce labour by 85% for my client.
“My client is a fruit supplier to many leading supermarket chains and having assisted them in the redevelopment of their factory we began to look for an automated solution which would overcome the drawbacks of manual packing and ultimately eliminate product bruising, increase line throughput and re-deploy manual workers.”
Pacepacker’s team of engineers worked with Mason and the fruit packer to create several equipment design concepts before finally developing the FlexaPac.
Two simple, yet effective, parallel conveyor belts transport the bags of fruit from the net packing machine onto FlexaPac’s set of landing platforms. Once the correct quantity of netted product has been recognised by the system, they are gently pushed onto a set of lowering plates, which then smoothly lower the product into the waiting tray below – completely eliminating product damage and waste. Without human handling, the system evenly distributes layers of fruit, below the level of the tray bale arms or carton lips, until the required quantity is met. The system uses a combination of touch screen, PLC and servo systems and enables storage of many recipes for different product configurations.
The system comes with intelligent options such as the email alert system for when production capability is not being achieved through low input of trays or packs and production status snapshots.
Pacepacker services business development manager, Paul Wilkinson, said: “The patented FlexaPac technology is completely different from anything else on the market, and while it has been designed to automate and overcome the issues relating to the packing of netted fruit it also offers manufacturer’s of other netted goods such as nuts, plant bulbs, onions and cheeses, a fast and waste efficient automated packing option. The FlexaPac has the option of being fed via one or two netting machines and can be interlocked into an existing line to offer a fully integrated turnkey system – a first for netted fruit packing.”
As an industry-first, the FlexaPac is receiving a lot of attention from net bagging equipment manufacturers looking to provide turnkey lines. One such leading packaging supplier to the fresh produce industry, Verti-Pack, one of five leading packaging companies who make up the GSH Group, has now partnered with Pacepacker.
Andy Brooks, the firm’s general manager, explained: “Verti-Pack has been supplying some of the UK’s leading fruit packers with weighing/counting, sorting and inspection and netting equipment for over 20 years and we work very closely with the Sorma Group, a world leader in produce handling and packing systems. FlexaPac is the first system we’ve come across to successfully automate the tray loading process. We believe that there is a very good synergy between Verti-Pack and Pacepacker and we will be actively promoting the FlexaPac to our customers. We are currently seeking opportunities to partner with Pacepacker and to install the FlexaPac – offering our customers a complete fully automated solution for the first time.”
Mason added: “We are delighted with Pacepacker’s FlexaPac solution; it is the missing link in the fast and efficient packing of netted citrus fruits. Not only will this machine increase throughout, it should eliminate waste and reduce labour by 85% for my client. Plus, the footprint of the FlexaPac has been cleverly designed so that it is no bigger than the current rotary table operation – all in all, it’s an excellent solution which overcomes the drawbacks of manual fruit packing.”