Phil Brown Welding plans to market this year a vacuum-powered, fresh-market apple harvester that is gentle on apples.
Apple harvester debuts
The Phil Brown harvester gently vacuums in apples, making good use of labor.
Like the good inventors they are, Phil Brown and Mike Rasch spent the winter tearing apart their prototype vacuum-powered fresh-market apple harvester and emerged in late February with a redesigned machine.
They got it together just in time to show it to visitors who came to Phil Brown Welding in Conklin, Michigan, in early March, during the International Fruit Tree Association annual conference.
What a difference a winter makes.
The new machine is smallera two-picker version instead of using four peopleand it no longer relies on Brown's Brownie II four-man orchard platform as a carrier or for power. In this new rendition, the harvester consists of a self-contained vacuum module powered by a 20-horsepower Honda engine. The older version ran off hydraulic power generated from the Brownie II engine and was integrated into it.
The machine, as it was shown in March, sat on a Brownie, an older, popular one-person positioning machine, of which there are 800 already in the field, and it can mount on any similar machine, even those made by rival manufacturers.
In the same vein, the apples go into boxes that can be towed on any bin hauler, not just the five-bin shuttle designed and sold by Phil Brown Welding. The idea, Rasch said, is to cut the cost of the harvesting system by letting growers use more of the equipment they already have.
The vacuum unit is attached to four tubes, two for vacuum only and two used by two pickers. Each worker picks apples and puts them into a funnel-shaped tube entrance where they are swiftly carried by vacuum to bins on the trailing wagon.
"We're not driving it hydraulically now," Rasch said. "We're driving the blower with a 4-stroke engine."
"The vacuum system is an independent module so it can be adapted to any platform or even put on the back of a tractor with a box shuttle behind it," Brown added. "Or we can use it on our four-man platform machine or on anybody's platform. It will adapt to anything people already have out there. It can go right on the three-point of a tractor pulling a box hauler."
"That's why we wanted to go to a more modular unit. It will be less expensive and more adaptable for the smaller grower," Rasch said.
One other new feature is what Rasch calls the "singulator," which keeps apples from running into each other as they approach the bins.
In the previous prototype, the picker set the pace as he or she put the apples, one by one, into the funnel entrance to the vacuum hose. Now, pickers can pick faster and let the machine keep the apples from bumping into each other.
The key part of the machine remains the decelerator, in which an apple moving fast through the vacuum hose is stopped and captured by a rotating foam rubber wheel. The apple is transferred by the wheel and rolls out onto a fan-like distributor with canvas blades that catch the apples and gently rolls them into the bin. An electric eye controls the distance from the canvas to the apples in the bin so they are not dropped. The decelerator box above the bin moves up as the bin fills. The decelerator head is firmly held at the correct distance by aluminum "skis" that sit on two sides of the bin.
Several patents have been applied for. Key features of the machine are the slippery neoprene-lined tubes that carry the apples, the decelerator unit that stops and moves the apple, the concept that maintains the vacuum as the apples move through and exit the system, and the dry bin-filler system.
The inventors hope to bring machines to the market in time for apple harvest this fall.
The new machine's performance was evaluated last fall by Michigan State University Extension fruit educator Phil Schwallier. He measured the amount of bruising on the harvested fruit. It was lower than on hand-picked fruit placed into bins from bottom-emptying picking bags.
Brown says the machine boosts picker productivity by at least 25 percent, as it eliminates ladder positioning, climbing up and down, and the walking that is required of pickers as they carry their full bags to the bin. The system can use workers with less skill, experience, and strength, and greatly reduces worker fatigue.
"Anybody can pick apples now," Brown said. The machine provides the flexibility to use part-time, part-season workers, retired people, older people, and physically less robust people, he said.
The machine was designed by Brown, Rasch, and Rasch's cousin Chuck Dietrich. Together they have formed DBR Conveyor Concepts of Conklin, Michigan, which will hold the patent licenses. Phil Brown Welding will be manufacturing and marketing the technology for DBR Conveyor Concepts, LLC.
The inventors believe this technology can be used anywhere to convey any round, firm fruit or vegetable. Vacuum is used in many industries to move lots of things, Rasch said.
The machine was built in the manufacturing facility on Fruit Ridge, where Phil Brown Welding fabricates about 35 different orchard machines, including lifts, platforms, bin haulers, tree planters, and pruners.
In the harvester version shown last fall, four people rode on platforms on the machine and picked apples from two rows of trees. Each person picked from a platform that could move up and down and back and forth into the trees. In the smaller version, one worker walks ahead of the machine, carrying one tube and picking low-hanging fruit. The second worker is on the machine platform and can move it up and down to pick the higher fruit and place it into a tube. That worker also controls the machine's movement down the row.
Brown said the new version makes it more flexible, in that alley width no longer matters since workers pick from one side only. The machine is six feet wide. The basket on the Brownie also can move higher and pick taller trees.
"We're just farmers from Conklin, Michigan. But we think this is a better mousetrap," Rasch said last fall. Schwallier, similarly enthusiastic, said, "I think we have an apple harvester."