Technology sector focuses on achieving savings through innovation

Tech - Aja big screen image

Customers turn to Aja to help them automate and reduce labour costs as much as possible

The implementation of technological and software solutions designed to boost productivity and cut wastage is shaping the fresh produce sector of the 21st century. Produce Business UK reports on four of the market leaders from The London Produce Show and Conference

Weighing in on waste

UK-based Aja has been supplying weighing systems for pack houses for fruits, salads and vegetables for the past 40 years, and plans to highlight some of its latest innovations, including a new automated solution specifically designed for on-the-vine tomatoes.

Managing director Andrew Crisp explains that Aja focuses on two core areas – reducing labour through automation where possible and controlling pack weights.

For products such as stonefruit and table grapes, Aja offers weighing systems to pack the fruits as efficiently as possible by reducing giveaway through automation, while the company’s standard solutions can be adapted to cover a huge variety of products.

“We have developed real niche expertise over the last 30 years for packhouses by designing bespoke packing lines and software which give clients the opportunity to reduce their giveaway and manning levels, and increase their profitability,” says Crisp.

In all cases, Crisp says customers have been looking to automate and reduce labour costs as much as possible. But although this may be relatively straightforward for some products, for others it presents considerably greater challenges. “If you are packing something like oranges, it’s very easy to pack them automatically, but if you are packing for example table grapes, it’s not quite so easy,” he says.

“Our point of difference is that we have a number of unique solutions which specifically address difficult produce and offer levels of automation and control not available elsewhere.”

Aja has further developed a new, simplified software for packing to average weight designed to try to overcome difficulties some companies have previously experienced implementing systems. “A lot of packhouses have struggled to introduce automated systems, particularly overseas, so we have developed much simpler, more user-friendly software to make that transition easier,” says Crisp.

Aja has also recently launched a new product that the company believes can help overcome some of the difficulties associated with packing fresh-cut fruits. “Cut fruit involves huge amounts of labour – this system can increase the accuracy and get the giveaway down to almost nothing,” claims Crisp. 

Tech - Aja weighing image
Simplified software makes Aja systems more user-friendly

Optimised processes

Meanwhile Italian company Top Control specialises in supplying software and hardware solutions aimed at helping companies optimise packhouse processes. Its main focus is on helping clients reduce costs and improve productivity by providing them with a real-time packhouse data overview.

Top Control recently used the setting of The London Produce Show and Conference to highlight its Statistic Weight system – software that connects work stations packing small, 100-200g trays of table grapes, berries or cut herbs.

“With our scales, we control that weight – every tray that the operator packs is recorded on our system,” explains Top Control’s Philipp Morandell says. “As the system works through wi-fi, connecting cables to the scales are not required, meaning time can be saved during installation.”

Top Control’s system works by collecting real-time data from each work station, with every operator allotted an RFID (identification) chip with which they log-in at the start of their shift, meaning every tray packed by the employee is recorded under their name by the software.

As Morandell explains, this process enables companies to pull together statistics and carry out evaluations of products packed by individual operators.

Although the five year old company’s origins are in the South Tyrol apple sector, Top Control this year delivered 500 scales to a South African client for table grapes, and Morandell emphasises that the firm is very flexible to adapting its software to different customers’ needs.

Its latest innovation is a system that displays real-time packhouse data – at The London Produce Show 2016. “The new tool we are creating displays the productivity of packing lines in real time on a big screen, which shows the packhouse manager straight away what is happening,” explains Morandell.

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Top Control: real-time data from each station

Cloud connections

Swedish firm MOST specialises in remotely connected tracking devices for logistics providers. The company is owned by technology innovation specialist BAS ITG and works within the perishables industry, providing devices that can track a cargo from start to finish without ever being disconnected. “Other devices typically have to be collected from a container or truck at the end of a journey and connected to a computer to upload the information,” CEO Matilda Bouchet says. “Since MOST is always connected to the Cloud, you just follow it on your phone or tablet and get the latest readings.”

The impetus for MOST’s creation came from a South African exporter who approached BAS ITG with the idea of developing a device that was always connected to the web so data did not get lost, after experiencing difficulties with traditional tracking solutions.

The MOST device, which made its first official appearance at The London Produce Show earlier this month, contains five sensors – location, temperature, humidity, light and shock, which provide continual readings over its 60+ battery lifespan.

Bouchet says another advantage of the technology is that it has digital rather than analogue sensors, meaning that the device does not have to be calibrated before being sent out. “With the MOST sensor you just take it out of its box, press the button, the green light comes on and you pop it into the container,” she says.

Rather than having to log in to different interfaces separately when handling multiple shipments, MOST’s system can also view all devices in transit at the same time.

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MOST's system is always connected to the Cloud

Industry-specific software

Linkfresh is a long-established technology specialist for the fresh produce sector, which focuses on developing software solutions for packhouses using Microsoft Dynamics Nav as its basis. Developed by its parent company some 12 years ago, Linkfresh has offices in Cambridge and California, and serves the rest of the world through a partner network.

“If you went to Microsoft and bought off-the-shelf ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] software, it wouldn’t know anything about traceability or managing a packhouse, and that’s what Linkfresh adds on top,” explains the company’s chief technology officer, Richard Jones.

“It is software for our industry, and what’s unique about it is that it’s lots of different packages rolled-up into one; so it’s managing your packhouse and every aspect of the supply chain scenarios that we encounter.

“Whatever screen you are looking at, you have one set of information that is presented to you. The thing that makes it very unique is that we’ve got guys using handheld computers on ships, in packhouses, out in the field – it’s wherever you need this information, whatever device, it’s available to you.”

Linkfresh has so far carried out 170 implementations – the majority of which have been in the UK - and highlighted the system’s traceability capabilities, as well as other functions, at The London Produce Show.

“With all the food scares, if one of our customers is asked by a retailer, they can pull out all the information about how a particular bit of produce was handled through the whole company – we can trace back absolutely every interaction,” Jones says.

Next on the horizon is a new version of Linkfresh adapted to the needs of bigger businesses. “We’re expanding our portfolio – we have imported Linkfresh to MS Dynamics AX, which is a bigger beast,” he says. “It’s there to serve organisations with 200+ people, so we are launching our AX product offering for that larger customer base.”

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