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Automating to soften the impact of manual labour shortages

07 October 2017

David Jahn highlights the potential crisis that producers and soft fruit packers may face in the event of a reduction in the availability of EU seasonal labour and suggests a possible solution.

Between May to September each year, more than 28,000 EU workers come to the UK to harvest, process, grade and pack soft fruit alone. A recent report by British Summer Fruits reports that with wages representing a significant portion of the costs for packhouses, retail prices for items like strawberries and raspberries could rise by over 30%, squeezing profit margins further.

Improving packing productivity and economic output per hour will be central to boosting efficiency and offsetting fresh produce price rises. With packhouses grappling with this imminent EU labour crisis, combined with rising minimum wages, many Brillopak customers are seriously exploring automated case loading systems.

To demonstrate the agility that seasonal packhouses can realise, Brillopak recently showcased its Unipick  P160 high speed case and crate packer at PPMA. Specifically designed for the fresh food sector, specifically tray seal punnets, flow wrap and vertical form fill seal products, including soft fruits, top fruits, root vegetables and meat products, the machine marks a step change in automation performance.

While the P160 can pack at high speeds, averaging over 100 packs per minute, the two three-axis robot spider arms are able to individually place each pack one by one, gently into a retail crate. Highly dexterous, with a reach of 1130mm, this gentle handling helps to prevent bruising and damage to delicate and perishable fruit and vegetables, which contributes to the 100,000 tonnes of avoidable manufacturing UK food waste each year.

Traditionally, to achieve high speeds like this in case loading, machines pick layers or rows of product. However, this can lead to fruit punnets and flow wrapped fresh items such as apples being dropped, which requires human intervention and interruption to the packing line, plus leads to significant waste which impacts profits.” 

For many products, single pack picking is the safest and fastest way to meet retailer specified case loading patterns and deliver good presentation. 

Brillopak’s P160 system incorporates two Omron three-arm Delta robots, both with quick release end-of-arm robot heads for different product types. These enable packhouses to extend their traditional seasonal work windows to year-round packing operations and flex quickly to multiple product types and sizes, resulting in a quicker return on investment. 

For food factories and packhouses tight on space, the machine’s compact footprint, 3.2m x 15.m, makes it an estimated 15% smaller than any other dual robot layer-based automated handling system on the market today. 

The UK has an enviable reputation for harvesting quality fresh produce and just over half the food we eat in the UK originates from here. Today, fresh produce is a key driver of retail store traffic and therefore has an influence on the entire weekly shopping spend. Most are highly perishable products and should be packed as close to the point of consumption as possible. The popularity of soft fruits continues to climb, and by 2020 an additional 2,000 seasonal workers will be required to meet demand. 

To a large extent, packing into cases remains a manual task, making the UK’s over-dependence on seasonal EU labour a worry. Thankfully, high-speed technology like the P160 case loader, makes automation financially viable, even for seasonal and SME packhouses. 

Depending on the application, ROI for the P160 can be between one and three years. By delivering consistent presentation on all types of punnets, flow wrap and vertical form fill seal products, packhouses can seek out and exploit new business opportunities.
David Jahn is director at Brillopak.

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