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Time to review your fresh produce packing?

10 October 2016

The UK is seeing a growing demand for pre-prepared fresh fruit and vegetables which means that fresh food producers need to be able to cost-effectively meet increasing demand for such products. 

Sales of pre-prepared fruit and vegetables in the UK are estimated to account for as much as £1 billion according to Mintel.  With new healthier options, like the trend for innovative veg such as ‘courgetti’, sweet potato fries, and economical wonky veg, fresh food producers need to be able to respond more quickly to retail orders, turning around a larger range of unspoiled products in faster timescales.

While automation continues to flourish among food suppliers. Fresh food producers have been more hesitant to adopt due to concerns about bruising of delicate fruits and bags of product bursting - which can increase wastage and lead to hefty retailer penalties. 

With customer’s quality expectations continually increasing, it is important for companies to take a fresh look at robotics to help improve efficiency in their packing facilities.  Among the most recent innovations from Pacepacker, for example, is a range of fully integrated turnkey systems that can be interlocked into existing lines and specifically address the issue of fresh produce wastage. 

Automating the labour intensive activity of manually loading netted fruits and delicate vegetables from a rotary table into crates, trays and cartons, the FlexaPac system is believed to be a first for fruit packing. It can handle in excess of 60 nets of fruit and vegetables every minute, and can virtually eliminate product bruising and waste, while having the ability to reduce labour costs by up to 85%.  

With a footprint equivalent to existing rotary table operations, the FlexaPac system comprises two parallel conveyor belts that transport bags of fruit from a packing machine onto a set of landing platforms. Here, once the correct quantity of netted or bagged product has been recognised by the system, they are gently pushed onto a set of lowering plates, which smoothly releases the product into the waiting tray below – eliminating damage and waste. Without human handling, the system evenly distributes layers of either netted or bagged fruit, below the level of the tray bale arms or carton lips, until the required quantity is met. 

Stacks of potential 
Pacepacker’s Shingle Tray Loader (STL) is a fully automated vertical packing solution  which can help reduce waste and present fresh form, fill and seal packs uniformly into retail trays. Incorporating a FANUC robot and Pacepacker’s own-design shingle feed end-effector and tray denester, the STL is able to vertically pack everything – from fresh bags of salad to chopped vegetables, stir fry mixes and packs of sliced pineapple.  The STL can achieve packing rates of 90 packs per minute, while ensuring consistent presentation. 

The STL’s bespoke end effector adjusts its position to catch fresh produce packs as they shoot off the end of a conveyor, stacking packs on top of each other. Once full, the robot arm then tilts the end effector into a horizontal position above a waiting full or half-sized crate, releasing the entire product collection uniformly into the tray. Upright stacking means that products maintain their freshness for longer and are more visually appealing to consumers. In addition, more packs can be fitted into each tray, reducing supply chain and distribution costs 

Fresh take on ROI
Although the average number of operatives previously performing fresh produce packing tasks varies by manufacturer, a 12-month ROI for a larger packing plant is more than feasible when factoring in workforce costs and emergency agency cover. In addition, the sheer volume of product that can be handled by each system – 40+ product variants can be programmed into a single machine – and the waste reductions that can be accomplished by stopping perishable items being overexposed to excessive manual handling, results in operational savings. 

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