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Fruit-packing line learns to count

Hand-stamping of variable information has been replaced by automatic ink-jet printing. A machine vision system counts fruit pieces and relays totals for each box to the printer.
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FILED IN:  Applications  > Food  > Produce
     

Box coding sorting stacking and strapping have undergone a real transformation on the packaging line used for premium fruits at Fowler Packing Co. of Fresno CA.

Keys to the upgrade are two TL-4 fruit labelers from Sinclair Systems Intl. (Fresno CA) and two S.C.I.F.I.™ 3200 ink-jet marking systems from Matthews Intl. (Pittsburgh PA). Integrated into the Sinclair fruit labeling system is a machine vision system that counts the pieces of fruit in each corrugated box and relays that data to the Matthews printer so that it can print that number on each box in both human-readable and bar-code format.

The new technology replaces a largely manual operation. Packers used to hand-load the fruit into corrugated boxes. They also hand-stamped four pieces of information on one side of each box: grower number fruit type (peach plum pear etc.) fruit type variety (Fancy Lady June Lady Rich Lady etc.) and number of fruit pieces. Filled boxes with coded information were then folded closed by hand stacked three-high by hand and strapped by hand.

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Manual loading of the fruit into the corrugated boxes is about all that remains of this approach. Operators send loaded boxes down one of two spurs; each includes an automatic pressure-sensitive fruit labeler from Sinclair and a snap-lock box closer from Klippenstein (Fresno CA). Packers no longer need to stamp codes onto boxes because the Matthews ink-jet printer does it automatically. Before a production run begins an operator pulls up a drop-down menu on the human/machine interface panel of the ink-jet printer. He then selects the grower number fruit type and fruit type variety appropriate for the run so that the printer’s PLC knows that these should be printed on the box. The operator then throws a switch at the ink-jet printer to make a connection with the Sinclair vision system upstream near the fruit labeler. The vision system uses a videocamera to count the pieces of fruit in a box and it then sends that information to the ink-jet printer so that when that box gets coded the correct number will be printed in both human-readable and bar code formats.

Bar code’s role

The bar code plays a key role in the automated handling system that’s downstream. When the code is scanned it triggers automatic sortation. If the bar code says a box holds 16 pieces of for instance Sampsons Fancy Lady peaches the box is sent down conveyor A. Boxes with 22 pieces go down conveyor B. And boxes with 26 pieces go down conveyor C. This sortation is important because it’s easier for retailers to stock and keep inventory when they receive pallets whose boxes all contain a like number of fruit.

Each of these downstream conveyor spurs has an automatic stacker from MAF Industries (Traver CA) that stacks the boxes three high. Immediately thereafter a strapper from Signode (Vernon Hills IL) unitizes the boxes with a plastic strap. Palletizing is all that remains and this is done manually as it was before.

Because so many tasks formerly done by hand are now done automatically Fowler has been able to redeploy about 18 packers.

“By virtue of software that blends vision recognition and ink-jet technology we are achieving our desired throughput in a way that is efficient and economical” says Phil Parnagian one of four brothers who are partners in the business. “The system paid for itself in a single season.” —PR

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