Peter Vonk, Looije Packing:

"Every non-mechanized step translates to additional labor work."

“Our labor factor was becoming a significant burden in the production process,” explains Technical Adviser Peter Vonk of Looije Packing, a company specializing in packing fruits and vegetables. Peter is currently focused on the company’s new objective: automating the previously manual process of packing apples into trays. “Minimum wages are increasing, and the cost of labor is growing, while the availability of labor remains limited,” he states.

“Retaining temporary workers throughout the seasonal fluctuations poses an ongoing challenge,” Peter emphasizes. This challenge is compounded by the transitions between seasons. He acknowledges the importance of continuity, even in the context of packing apples. “We are well aware of the difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. Consequently, we are striving to streamline the labor process, making it more accessible. The initial steps we’ve taken involve mechanizing certain aspects. Ultimately, every process left unmechanized translates to an additional worker required for oversight.”

Attractive to invest

At Looije Packing, the introduction of automation resulted in cost savings ranging from half to two-thirds in the apple packing line staffing, according to Peter. “The feasibility of investing in automation or robotization becomes particularly attractive, especially given the current wage rates,” he observes.

He highlights that, for the tray filler, only the visual quality control and the positioning of apples in the pack involve manual work, in addition to an employee for input and an operator. Additionally, Peter envisions further opportunities for automation in the future. “The current trend is towards implementing movements with robotic arms, cobots, and spider robots,” he notes. For instance, he suggests that the manual task of positioning apples in the packaging for optimal presentation could be efficiently handled by a rotating robot in the future.

A picture of the Trayfiller BTI from Burg Machinery.

Solutions in limited space

While many packing stations engage in sorting products on-site, Looije Packing opts for a different approach by utilizing products that have already been sorted elsewhere. This distinction affects the mechanization of the packing process, as highlighted by Peter. “This sets us apart from many colleagues who can directly target their work from the source. It does pose challenges in finding an appropriate solution, often resulting in what I refer to as a 75 percent solution. In such cases, we seek out a partner capable of providing the remaining 25 percent.”

Peter reflects on the success of this approach, particularly in the customization of the line around the BTI tray filler for round products. Supplier Burg Machinery played a crucial role in devising solutions to implement the entire line within a confined space. After three seasons, Peter can confidently assert that this solution has proven successful.

Because a part of the line around the BTI tray filler for round products was customised and supplier Burg Machinery arrived at solutions to realise the entire line in a limited space, Peter can conclude, after three seasons, that it succeeded with this solution.

Control input tracks separately

Because pre-sorted products are used, it was crucial for Looije Packing that the various input lanes could be controlled separately. “This was a specific requirement in the search for the implementation of automation. We package four to eight apples on a kilogram scale. For this, we work with pre-sorted imported products. For a packaging of, for example, six apples, we create a mix of two sizes, with four apples of a smaller size and two of a larger size, aiming to approximate the weight of one kilogram as closely as possible. The advantage of the BTI machine is that we can control each input lane independently—adjusting one lane’s speed without affecting the others—allowing us to create such a mix,” says Peter. He notes that at the end of the packaging process, all packages go through a checkweigher, where packages below the weight threshold are repackaged.

Creative with space​

Peter observes that the limitation of space is frequently an inherent challenge in the packaging locations, especially when working indoors at large storage and transshipment facilities. “Limited space necessitates a more creative approach to finding solutions,” he notes. One such creative solution involves adapting a specific packaging line for a different product. Peter emphasizes that this is feasible because the input and output sides of a packaging line often remain consistent, requiring only the switch of the packaging machine.

Like, for example, switching from apples, whose season has ended for Looije Packing, to grapes. “Whereas an apple is often packed in a cardboard packaging such as a wing tray or in stretch film, grapes often go in a topseal or flowpack packaging. That requires yet another machine, but the entry and exit is the same nine times out of 10. So around such a packing machine, you can automate a lot.” This is where, for example, a palletiser or automatic strapping come into the picture. “Those solutions are becoming more compact and those are the things where you can make a profit these days,” Peter concludes.