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Automated carrot packing solution offers a rapid ROI

15 November 2021

Find out how an automated packing solution – with an estimated ROI of less than three years – has boosted productivity and offered greater packaging flexibility for a carrot farm. 

Preston-based Huntapac Produce is laying the groundwork to boost its automation packing efficiency. Founded during WWII, the family-run carrot farm is now one of the largest in Europe and is a supplier to most British supermarkets. 

Will Hunter, operations director  at Huntapac Produce is leading a mission to intro-duce new quality control, process and packaging technology, with a quick return on investment (ROI), to boost productivity.

Having explored numerous robotic pick and place, Hunter opted for an innovative mechanical case loading system, designed by Brillopak. With an estimated ROI of 2.5 years, Huntapac tasked Brillopak with engineering a compact, bespoke tray pack-ing system to accumulate and present carrot packs into neat layer formations in re-tail-ready crates.

Hunter explains further: “There is an accepted truth within the farming community that automation can address labour shortages and improve how packs are presented into retail trays. Despite this, it can be hard for many to justify a seven-year ROI on traditional pick and place robots.” An accumulation system, based upon Brillopak’s PunnetPAKer design, with a retractable overhead push and slide mechanism, was able to more than half the traditionally expected ROI.

A specially-adapted Brillopak vegetable packing machine allows Huntapac to run different sized and weighted carrot packs, from 500g to 1.5kg, smaller Chantenay carrots, and even parsnips, as well as different packaging materials including new recyclable substrates. All without incurring time delays by switching robot end effec-tors. 
Field to yield improvements
Presenting up to 80 carrot packs per minute into retail trays, Huntapac replaced one of its traditional rotary table, manual crate packing lines with the automated system earlier this year. Operating 16-hours a day, five days a week, 1,200 tons of carrots are graded, washed, polished, cooled, optically graded by size and quality, packed and checkweighed. Once loaded into the cases, the carrots are transported to a cold store, ensuring they stay fresh before distribution across the country.

Previously reliant on manual labour to maintain a constant case-loading pace, now a disparate, unconnected bagging and checkweighing system has been fully integrated into the case packing system. “By uniting all the electronics up the line, the ma-chines all communicate with each other via a common control platform. This helps to pre-empt bottlenecks, address production lags and respond instantly if packs get trapped. Should any of these events occur, the upstream packing and checkweighing machines slow or stop automatically until all the processes are in-step with each other again,” said Hunter. “The speed is very much governed by the processing speed of our baggers and checkweighers. Although the case loader is capable of go-ing faster, we wouldn’t want it to compromise the quality of our produce,” adds Hunter.

With most carrot crates destined for supermarket shelves, consistent display presentation of the carrots, face up and positioned straight up with the branding and labels clearly visible is vital. Huntapac’s existing merging system and bag flippers ensures that each carrot pack is horizontally aligned before being fed into the Bril-lopak case packing machine. 

Four packs are then presented individually onto a collation support plate, nudging each one along until there are four slightly overlapping packs. David Jahn, director at Brillopak, describes the sequence: “The concept follows a similar principle to a coin pusher arcade game. As one lands on the previous pack, gravity pushes them over to create crate-ready layer.” 

As soon as the four packs are in position, a side load slider gently pushes the carrot packs onto a flap opening device located directly above the crate. Simultaneously to the carrot packs lowering into the crate, the slider flap lifts, retracts overhead and drops behind the next set of carrots, pushing next accumulation towards the crate flap. 

The flexibility of the system allows the company to respond to the seasonal peak demands, including the packing of parsnips – another core part of the grower’s busi-ness. The night shift also regularly runs smaller Chantenay carrots on the line.

Having the ability to move from a fast-paced labour intensive crate loading opera-tion to an automated system has been welcomed by the farm. “Because we are re-moving the reliance on agency staff, our productivity per person has significantly in-creased. Our core packhouse team was excited to see the machine go in and felt really connected to the project and the wider benefits of eliminating labour inten-sive routine activities of this nature. The wellbeing, safety, motivational and up-skilling advantages were evident from day one.”
Although crate insertion and removal is currently performed at the end of the cell manually, the carrot farmer hasn’t ruled out automating the crate destacking and palletising phase to complete its packing automation cycle in the future. 

The reduction of manual work streamlines packing processes and reduces waste and improves worker safety. Flexible machines, which can be adapted to seasonal pro-duce and future packing and product applications further increases their viability, with less risk. 

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