Retail innovations ripen demand for fresh produce automation

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Retail innovations ripen demand for fresh produce automationWith customer’s quality expectations continually increasing, Pacepacker Services continues to revolutionise how fresh food producers use robotics to improve efficiency in their packing facilities. Among the most recent innovations is a range of fully integrated turnkey systems that can be interlocked into existing lines and specifically address the issue of fresh produce wastage.

From pre-washed bags of salad to prepared vegetables and ready-to-eat fruit, for time-poor Britons these groceries have an irresistible lure. Sales of pre-prepared fruit and veg in the UK are estimated to account for as much as £1 billion. And with new healthier options, like the trend for innovative veg such as ‘courgetti’, sweet potato fries, and economical wonky veg, fresh food producers are under growing pressure to respond quicker to retail orders, turning around a larger range of unspoiled products in faster timescales.

Fieldwork studies of consumer behaviours in the latest DEFRA Food Statistics Pocketbook lists product quality in the top 5 factors that influence choice, with 62 per cent of shoppers citing it as important. Only price featured more highly. While automation continues to flourish amongst food suppliers, fresh food producers have been more hesitant to adopt due to concerns about bruising of delicate fruits and bags of product bursting – which can increase wastage and lead to hefty retailer penalties.

FlexaPac a first for handling delicate netted fruits

Automating the labour-intensive activity of manually loading netted fruits and delicate vegetables from a rotary table into crates, trays and cartons, Pacepacker’s FlexaPac system is described as a first for fruit packing. Effortlessly handling in excess of 60 nets of fruit and vegetables per minute, the FlexaPac virtually eliminates product bruising and waste and has the ability to reduce labour costs by 85 per cent.

With a footprint equivalent to existing rotary table operations, Pacepacker’s patented FlexaPac system comprises two parallel conveyor belts that transport bags of fruit from a packing machine onto a set of landing platforms. Here, once the correct quantity of netted or bagged product has been recognised by the system, they are gently pushed onto a set of lowering plates, which smoothly releases the product into the waiting tray below – completely eliminating damage and waste. Without human handling, the system evenly distributes layers of either netted or bagged fruit, below the level of the tray bale arms or carton lips, until the required quantity is met.

Paul Wilkinson, Pacepacker’s Business Development Manager explains: “The patented FlexaPac technology is completely different from anything else on the market. While it has been designed to automate and overcome issues relating to the packing of both netted and bagged fruit it also offers manufacturers of other goods, such as nuts, plant bulbs, onions, cheeses and shell fish, a fast and waste efficient automated packing option.”

Stacks of fresh potential

Pacepacker’s Shingle Tray Loader (STL) is described as the first fully automated vertical packing system of its kind, reducing waste and presenting fresh form, fill and seal packs uniformly into retail trays. Incorporating the latest FANUC M-710iC/45M robot and Pacepacker’s own-design shingle feed end-effector and tray denester, the STL vertically packs everything from fresh bags of salad to chopped vegetables, stir fry mixes and packs of sliced pineapple. Previously a conventional ‘turntable style’ operation employing multiple people to manually load supermarket trays vertically, the STL reaches 90 packs per minute, ensuring consistent presentation. Typical ROI is less than 12 months.

The STL’s bespoke end effector smoothly adjusts its position to catch fresh produce packs as they shoot off the end of a conveyor, stacking packs on top of each other. Once full, the robot arm then tilts the end effector into a horizontal position above a waiting full or half-sized crate, releasing the entire product collection uniformly into the tray. Upright stacking means that products maintain their freshness for longer and are more visually appealing to consumers. In addition, more packs can be fitted into each tray, reducing supply chain and distribution costs

Built to a compact footprint, the STL also features a multi-tasking pack diverter to count and index packs, while the tray denester separates the stacks of crates for filling, pushing them along the conveyor to the shingle packing operation. Up to 20 half trays per line per minute can be processed, ensuring no packing bottlenecks.

Fresh take on ROI

Although the average number of operatives previously performing fresh produce packing tasks varies by manufacturer, a 12-month ROI for a larger packing plant is more than feasible when factoring in workforce costs and emergency agency cover. In addition, the sheer volume of product that can be handled by each system – 40+ product variants can be programmed into a single machine – and the waste reductions that can be accomplished by stopping perishable items being overexposed to excessive manual handling, results in vast operational savings.

Paul concludes: “Given the appetite for premium convenience foods, fresh produce suppliers are naturally eager to enter this market. Equally, food retailers are keen to extend their prepared produce range. Hand packing is a labour-intensive process. Previously, robots and automation were considered too harsh for handling delicate produce. Yet now there are numerous viable automation options that enable fresh produce suppliers to maintain freshness, respond faster to retail orders and reduce waste and workforce costs. Ultimately suppliers that deliver high quality premium veg, minimal waste and consistent presentation will be clear winners in this next battle to engage shoppers.”

More information about Pacepacker’s robotics and turnkey systems can be found at

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