The "first-ever" automated system capable of loading bagged produce into receptacles for transportation aims to help eliminate unnecessary wastage of fruit in factories.
The system FlexaPac eliminates a slow and often wasteful manual task on packing lines, said Paul Wilkinson, business development manager at automated packaging machinery supplier Pacepacker Services.
It minimises damage at the final packing stage by using plates to lower batches of bags into receptacles such as trays, cartons or crates instead of having bags on a rotary table with workers manually picking and dropping them.
"We had two constraints when designing it," said Wilkinson. "We had to keep the height from which produce was dropped as low as possible and we had to pack faster than food manufacturers could using manual labour."
Unfit for sale
By lowering the bags from a minimal height above the tray, the machine prevents the damage and bruising often seen in manually handled produce. "When manually handled, soft goods hit the side or bottom of the tray from a height, which results in produce unfit for sale," said Wilkinson.
Companies in the fresh produce industry lose significant amounts of money to preventable damage. Minimising the amount of damaged goods customers receive is essential to ensure long-term profitability, according to Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium. "Bruising and damage is not something that is always immediately seen but could appear later on down the line. It is unacceptable to both our customers and the end consumers," he added.
Although originally developed for a packer of citrus fruits in netted bags, Pacepacker is finding the system has other potential uses. The firm has now done trials with other products such as tomatoes, cheeses and nuts in both netted and sealed plastic bags, said Wilkinson.
Eliminate unnecessary labour
The system which was successfully trialled earlier this year could also help food manufacturers to redistribute or eliminate unnecessary labour. The machine can replace the three or four operators and overseer typically found on a manual tray packing line. If automation increases the overall speed of the production line, these workers can be redeployed elsewhere, Wilkinson said.
The system's 60+ bags a minute speed can handle the production from two typical netting machines, which average about 30 bags a minute. This means the system is capable of handling two production lines at once, Wilkinson added.
Pacepacker went through several possible solutions before settling on using plates to lower packages. Typical automated pick-and-place systems that use grippers or vacuum suction to pick up objects would not work with irregularly shaped produce in bags, said Wilkinson. Using lowering plates became the obvious solution.
"When something new comes out people say: 'I can't believe that has never been thought of before'. We kind of thought that ourselves," he said.