Rev­o­lu­tion in pal­let move­ments in Dunedin

Ad­vances in ro­bot tech­nol­ogy have rev­o­lu­tionised pal­let move­ments at a pipfruit cool­store in Dunedin.

The Orchardist - - Technology - Story and pho­tos by Dianne King

The for­mer Ap­ple & Pear Board, later Enza stores, are now owned by T& G Global.

Bar­coded pal­lets of Cen­tral Otago ap­ples are moved by fork­lift on to ro­bots, or ro­bot­ics, which ef­fort­lessly park up the 56 car­tons per pal­let into rows of rack­ing 21 pal­lets deep.

Cool­store man­ager Bar­rie Aber­hart says the two small weighty-work­ers need no IRD num­bers and are “dream staff”.

Each rack­ing sys­tem has a set of rails un­der­neath on which the ro­bot­ics op­er­ate, lift­ing and mov­ing pal­lets.The sen­sors pick up a re­mote’s in­struc­tion from the fork­lift driver of either “in” or “out” and the ro­bot­ics’ wheels move along steel rails on the base of the rack­ing un­der­neath the pal­lets to silently fol­low or­ders. Some­times it’s to load the pal­lets “in” to rack­ing rows from one to three pal­lets high, other times to bring them “out” to the front of the rack for the fork­lift driver to trans­fer to a con­tainer for ship­ping over­seas.

Up to 20 con­tain­ers, mostly 40-foot, are loaded each day and with the speed of the robotic work­ers another pal­let is in place quicker than the fork­lift driver can re­turn. With the in­crease in the Cen­tral Otago crop it is an­tic­i­pated that this num­ber will rise to 30 con­tain­ers a day. A con­tainer is loaded in 15 min­utes.

The pur­chase of Turn­ers & Grow­ers by BayWa has en­abled more cap­i­tal in­vest­ment along with the pur­chase of the two $50,000 robotic movers and the com­pany wants to grow the busi­ness, T& G Global re­gional man­ager Jeff McDon­ald said.

The two high-tech ro­bots were pur­chased for last year’s ap­ple sea­son and Bar­rie Aber­hart wishes he had more as it en­sures the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the busi­ness when ef­fi­ciency is stream­lined.

“I need to be com­pet­i­tive against my big broth­ers fur­ther north and keep up my KPIs [key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors],” Bar­rie says.

Each pal­let of 56 car­tons of ex­port qual­ity ap­ples weighs 1.1 tonnes. Each con­tainer holds 1,176 car­tons.

Ap­ples are shipped to in­ter­na­tional mar­kets, the ma­jor­ity through T & G Global. Asia is now be­com­ing a pre­dom­i­nant mar­ket.

He jokes that robotic work­ers are never late, never an­swer back and never want sick leave –but on the se­ri­ous side, the ef­fi­cien­cies of us­ing mod­ern tech­nol­ogy are nec­es­sary to re­main com­pet­i­tive. Bar­rie also en­joys the one-to-one con­tact with the fork­lift driv­ers who are still needed to drive dou­ble­forked lifts to un­load trucks.

“Driv­ing fork­lifts and be­ing in cool­stores is not a sexy job for young peo­ple and it is also a sea­sonal job be­cause of the length of the ap­ple sea­son.”

“We run a fork­lift course in con­junc­tion with Work and In­come [WINZ] training fork­lift op­er­a­tors as there is a short­age in the in­dus­try. We feel as a com­pany it’s not al­ways about tak­ing, it’s about giv­ing back to the com­mu­nity. From the 10 that were trained, seven were em­ployed at the cool­store.”

Work­ing at zero de­grees re­quires warm jack­ets, hats, and heavy high-vis vests for the fork­lift driv­ers but the ro­bot­ics elec­tronic tech­nol­ogy is un­af­fected by the frosty tem­per­a­tures.

Another move in ef­fi­ciency would be the pur­chase of ro­bot fork­lifts to load the con­tain­ers. When Bar­rie started work at the cool­stores in 1983 he could never have en­vis­aged even these changes from man­ual to ro­bot­ics. “I was load­ing car­tons by hand.”

His ap­point­ment as su­per­vi­sor was fol­lowed by pro­mo­tion to cool­store man­ager in 1996.

Lo­gis­ti­cally the turnover re­quires that as in other ma­jor “ware­houses” In­ven­to­ries have to be ex­act for the bar­coded car­tons of fruit which this year are ex­pected to hit the 750,000 mark, putting pres­sure on space. Move­ments must be recorded and pre­cisely tracked for the fruit that moves from cool­stores to con­tain­ers for ship­ping to in­ter­na­tional mar­kets.

With the in­creased vi­a­bil­ity of pipfruit and the new plant­ings through­out Cen­tral Otago there will be greater pres­sure on use of the cool­store space with its force-draft rooms and chillers, where the en­tire con­tents of the store are al­ready turned over four times a sea­son. Bar­rie en­joys his job and is rel­ish­ing the use of the ro­bot­ics, but also likes his con­tact with the fork­lift driv­ers that he has trained.

“You have to have a sense of hu­mour in this job,” he says.

Bar­rie’s long term plan is to have robotic con­tainer load­ers, which he knows are al­ready be­ing used by Fon­terra and freez­ing com­pa­nies in Aus­tralia.

A small but ef­fi­cient robotic worker, with its two sen­sors, at T & G Global cool­stores, Dunedin. T & G Global Dunedin cool­stores man­ager Bar­rie Aber­hart and re­gional man­ager Jeff McDon­ald are backed by rows of robotic loaded rack­ing.

Left: Fork­lift driver Ryan Hen­der­son lift­ing a pal­let of car­tons on to the robotic (cen­tre) with a sec­ond robotic left at three racks high. Right: The robotic has moved the pal­let down the rows and has moved back faster than the fork­lift driver can re­tur

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