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Phased automation roadmap accelerates packing efficiency for Morrisons

20 February 2023

Embarking on a mission to reconfigure its fresh-produce packing hall at Thrapston, the Morrisons Centre of Excellence – which prepares and delivers 130 million packs of fruit every year to 82 stores – has succeeded in its automation vision and ambition.

At every phase of the five year programme Morrisons was supported by Brillopak. In total, 11 fully integrated fresh-produce packing lines were installed, comprising around 40 machines, with equipment and capital investments split across three defined phases.

Rather than piecemeal different technologies together, Thrapston’s site manager at the time, Matthew Peczek, sought a cohesive automation investment approach to increase efficiency, achieve packing consistency and optimise produce quality. 

Taking the decision to completely redevelop the factory layout in 2017, Peczek wanted all machinery to be designed and placed linearly, with everything coming from the chillers and out to the back end for distribution, in one continuous flow. His linear vision has since been realised. Now, every part of the line faces in the same direction throughout the packing hall.

Phasing in the flow
In 2016, Brillopak delivered stage one – optimising the manual packing of apples into crates. Thrapston commissioned five of Brillopak’s ergonomic PAKStations to replace less efficient manual packing and turntable operations.  This was the first step to automation and enabled the site to become more familiar with the automation.

To support these apple-packing lines and eliminate any potential bottlenecks, two Crate DESTAKers, five bale arm closers and five double stackers for palletising were also introduced. The result was five integrated packing lines that maintained a consistent packing pace, each feeding out onto the main track to an existing palletising system.

This first phase was intentionally designed as a holding pattern in the automation plan, allowing for the subsequent robotic machines that were to follow. “As a result of the fast payback due to labour efficiency, enhanced produce quality and reduced complaints, the plan was always to replace the PAKStations within two years. Swapping out with three fully automated UniPAKer robotic crate packing systems in phase two,” explained Peczek. It was, he affirms, always central to the strategy of improving quality and process efficiency and reducing costs and waste.

New access doors and platforms were inserted and refrigeration doors were moved. Approximately one-fifth of the main track was removed along with the overhead crate feed track. To optimise efficiency a two-tiered conveyor track was proposed. Now, the lower level feeds all the clean empty crates to the 11 packing lines, while the top tier transports filled fresh produce crates to the palletiser. 

Applying the best practice gained from phases one and two, in 2021 Thrapston completed its full-scale automation transformation with the roll out of six new linear packing lines. Handling a range of flow-wrapped and tray-sealed fresh produce, including pears, tomatoes, apricots, blueberries and grapes, Brillopak delivered a further five UniPAKers, one PAKstation, six bale arm closers, two Crate DESTAKers and six double stackers. 

The smoother and gentler handling of fresh produce has been proven to reduce complaints by over 30% and almost instantly, reported the Head of Operations at Thrapston.

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