WELL-KNOWN Scottish vegetable processor, Drysdales, has become the first UK produce company to automate its sprout crate loading operation.

The move was initiated to future-proof the company against potential labour shortages that could arise from Brexit, it said. Its investment in Brillopak’s award-winning UniPAKer robotic cell has already yielded a return on investment thanks to its ability to consistently load bags of sprouts into crates at speeds in excess of 75 packs per minute with minimal manual intervention.

“No-one else is using a machine like this to pack sprouts into crates; this investment fits with our business philosophy of harnessing innovation in farming and production methods in order to stay at the top of our game and deliver the best quality produce and service to our customers. We haven’t yet placed an order for a second robotic crate packer but if and when we do, it will be with Brillopak,” said Drysdales’ farming and facilities director, Ian McLachlan.

Located in the Borders, Drysdales has developed from its origins as a farm-based enterprise to a nationwide processor of added-value, locally grown vegetables. The company grows 50,000 tonnes of fresh vegetables – mainly swedes, sprouts and leeks – a year for British supermarkets.

It supplies sprouts year round, growing 900 acres – more than any other company in Europe – as well as being the largest peeler and the first company to operate a semi-automated peeling line.

Continuing this spirit of innovation, at the start of 2019, Drysdales embarked on a project to install a new fully automatic sprout packing line. The line would comprise a vertical bagging machine, metal detector, checkweigher and crate packing system, all located on a mezzanine floor.

This was to be the first time Drysdales had automated crate packing on its sprout processing lines, a decision driven largely by concerns about future labour supply.

“On all of our lines we were relying on manual labour to pack bags of sprouts into crates. However, with Brexit, we foresee a potential labour issue, so the time was right to invest in a machine that could perform this task,” explained Mr McLachlan.

A challenge in automating the operation was the number of possible pack and crate configurations. Sprouts are packed in a variety of bag sizes, from 200g up to 500g, and each retailer has its own crate format requirements.

“We needed the flexibility to accommodate different pack sizes and crate lengths, whole and half crates, landscape and portrait layouts and different volumes – from 10 packs up to 25 packs to a crate,” says Ian.

Drysdales invited several robotic equipment suppliers to put forward proposals, among them Brillopak, a Kent-based designer and manufacturer of flexible robotic packing and palletising systems. Its solution was the UniPAKer robotic pick and place cell originally engineered for packing potatoes and apples.

Using a four-arm delta robot on a compact footprint, it will load up to 75 VFFS, tray sealed or flow wrapped packs per minute and is ideal for vegetables, fruits and salad up to 1kg.

“We had never tried using the UniPAKer to handle sprouts before, but we knew that we could do the job. The challenges were the same as with potatoes – how do you pick and place flexible bags containing small, moving spherical products at speed with accuracy?” said David Jahn, director at Brillopak.

Two elements addressed this – the use of vision technology to recognise and orientate the packs and the unique design of its suction end-effector.

The unit has been running successfully for eight months at Drysdales’ facility in Cockburnspath, and is currently programmed to run 30 different patterns without the need for any tool changeovers.