Less Laborious Labor

The benefits of automated produce handling systems

Published online: Jan 01, 2017
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This article appears in the January 2017 issue of Potato Grower. 

Labor and its associated costs are key considerations for growers and packers looking to increase the efficiency and productivity of their vegetable handling systems. While it is never the intention of an employer to remove or replace a good, loyal and longstanding member of his or her staff, in many cases, labor for more “unskilled” field and packing roles, for example, is sourced from agencies, and is therefore an overhead that is justified for reduction.

The cost of labor in itself can often be enough reason to consider an upgraded and more automated vegetable handling line. And that’s not to mention the other variables that come with running a dynamic workforce, from issues of inconsistency due to tiredness to time off for illness and holidays.

With this in mind, let’s discuss some of the primary benefits that growers and packers are reporting as a result of integrating a more automated vegetable handling process into their businesses.


Increased Throughput

While gentle handling to ensure added value to a crop is always one of the main considerations when designing a new vegetable handling line, increasing productivity and minimizing labor requirements is always one of the key drivers for equipment updates. In most cases, coupling a reduction in labor requirements with an increase in automation means the line can run more continuously for maximum throughput.

On a single-machine level—for example, advances in box tipping equipment—have allowed a more continuous flow of product to be achieved onto the vegetable handling line, meaning increased throughput with minimum labor requirements.

Looking at advanced optical sorting machines, requirements for manual sorting are almost entirely removed, meaning not only significant savings in labor costs and all the associated variables of a manual workforce, but also the option for the line to run continuously outside of normal working hours for maximum throughput.


Increased Accuracy & Consistency

As vegetable handling equipment advances in its capabilities, the industry has seen more consistent results from automated handling processes, particularly when it comes to grading and sorting crops. The unique software of the latest machines, such as Tong’s Visar, allows the systems to work as if product were being sorted manually, but with greater capacity and consistency.

Unlike a manual workforce, machines do not get tired, are not subjective, and do not let good produce go to waste due to uncertainty or diverted attention. Instead, machines learn what defects are acceptable and not, thereby ensuring better grading results while significantly reducing labor costs.

The same can be said for other vegetable handling equipment that, when integrated into a line, can automate processes to improve consistency, increase productivity and reduce labor costs. Examples include integrating a de-stoner into a washing line to automate the stone removal process. Adding an effective separator at the start of the dirty crop handling process effectively removes much of the soil and debris that comes in with a crop during harvest, meaning fewer people are required in inspection areas.


Reduced Waste

It’s fair to say that much of the manual work involved in the vegetable handling process can be repetitive; it’s often said it can be easy for workers in the field and on packing lines to “switch off.” It’s not uncommon for buyers of automated handling equipment to say they lose crop to waste that could have made the grade. By using automated sorting rather than manual sorting, operators are able to remove the subjective elements that come with manual sorting.

Reduced waste is not only a benefit of an automated process but also an advantage of           upgrading handling equipment to newer, gentler models. As equipment has developed over the years, designs have advanced to ensure the gentlest handling of crops. Whether it is a box tipper gently tipping produce with minimal drop or the latest grading modules set to the right speed and agitation, gentle handling ensures minimal bruising and minimal waste.

Upgrading vegetable handling systems with a view to reducing the reliance on manual processes and cutting labor costs in many cases results in very noticeable bottom-line savings, contributing significantly to a significant return on investment. This makes a sound case for embracing the advanced and automated handling equipment that’s now available on the market.