For more than 100 years since the birth of industrial automation, engineers have dreamed of lights-out factories where machines perform tasks autonomously, without the need for human involvement. Today various process steps in industrial operations can be performed automatically, however there are few production lines that run truly lights-out, end to end.
WHAT IS THE STATE OF AUTOMATION IN APPLE PACKHOUSES, AND WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES FOR CONTINUING TO REDUCE RELIANCE ON HUMAN LABOR?
The evolution of packhouse technology has already enabled a significant amount of labor reduction compared to just 10 years ago. Initially reducing the number of workers on the line was important mostly as a way to manage cost and improve the profitability of the pack process. But over time the hiring, training and retaining of workers through the season have turned into challenges as significant as cost of labor itself. At this extraordinary moment for our industry, we can see labor availability issues exacerbated by the restrictions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The more advanced apple pack lines in the U.S. are already highly automated. Those packhouses enjoy several benefits in addition to reduced labor, including repeatably accurate grading performance that is not subject to fluctuations typical in human inspection processes, where skill level and decreased attention due to tiredness influence the grade outcome. Also, pack lines employing automated inspection systems can adjust more effectively to changes in the quality profile of the fruit, which take place naturally across different batches over the course of the season. This drives higher throughput and consistent pack rates, even when dealing with lots that have a high incidence of defects. But look around many of those apple packhouses today, and you’ll still find quite a number of people working around the line.
The next level of packhouse automation and labor reduction is accessible through a new generation of sorting systems, with the ability to inspect 100 percent of the surface of the apple including around the critical stem bowl and calyx areas. Due to the physical shape of the fruit, defects located around those regions have traditionally been difficult to detect automatically. However, that barrier is now removed. New sensor technology and advances in software intelligence can detect automatically every feature of the apple, accurately grading each fruit based on a complete understanding of its quality profile. This includes greater precision in classifying and managing color and cosmetic blemishes separately from spoilage defects that have potential for turning into rot at a later stage. Just as exciting are advances in internal grading NIR spectroscopy, making it possible to detect with increased precision internal features like browning, brix content and firmness - conditions that cannot be assessed through an external evaluation of the apple.
Thanks to those developments and a stronger handle on the fruit grading process, apple packers are now in a position to adopt more automation technology downstream on the line: bulk packing systems, robotic tray fillers, and automatic carton packers. At the end of the line smart carton printing systems, robotic palletizers and Automated Guided Vehicles for transferring pallets to storage and shipping operations are already a reality to reduce or eliminate human labor traditionally required to perform those tasks. Moving now to consider the front of the packhouse and the receiving area: sensor-based bulk sorting technology holds promise for automating removal of rot and other obviously unpackable fruit, preventing it from reaching the line in order to maximize efficiency.
Remote management systems and connected information analytics are a necessary enabler for any smart, highly automated production process. Those systems are essential for packhouse managers to understand and monitor the performance of the line, manage pack requirements, proactively address maintenance tasks, and feedback critical information to their growers and distributors to optimize the supply chain. This includes traceability for every fruit in the pack, a subject that has never been more important for the fresh produce industry to address.
In summary while a lights-out packhouse is not yet a reality, it is possible today to design a state-of-the-art apple pack process that leverages the latest technology in fruit receiving, sorting, packing and palletizing - and operate the entire line with a total team of 10 to 15. Those reduced staffing requirements would make it possible to run the line over an extended number of shifts to increase throughput. Or, within a smaller footprint achieve a similar pack output as a more labor-intensive line.
Looking ahead we can expect to see technology continue to evolve in value and usability, resulting in more efficient and accessible automation for packing our prized U.S. apples, moving us even closer to the goal of a lights-out operation.
Given the fact that 15 million Americans and 17 million Europeans have food allergies, the potential for significant problems soon becomes clear.
Originally published by US Apple.