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