Inventions developed in the course of building a better apple-harvesting system might have application also in packing houses.
Picker Technologies developed special tubes for transporting fruit from the picker’s hand to its new harvesting system, and a special dry bin filler with a vertical drop. And, the electronic sizing and grading system had to be small enough and cheap enough that it would fit on the harvesting platform and not make the system uneconomical for growers to buy.
The company consulted with a group of grower-packers while developing the machine to make sure it fit their needs. But as the group saw the harvesting system take shape, they saw the potential for using some of the components in packing houses also, said John Albert, who is vice president of business development for Picker Technologies.
Albert now has a similar position with a new subsidiary company called SmarTouch LLC, which has been formed to look at how this new technology might be adopted in packing houses. Former Stemilt Growers executive Hans van Someren Greve is general manager.
Albert envisions that PickerTechnologies’s patented TruePort transport tubes could be used in packing houses for gently moving fruit directly from one location (such as a sizer drop) to another part of the packing line (such as a bagger) without it having to go along conveyor belts and over drops. An advantage of the flexible tube is that it can carry fruit in any direction—even vertically. Tubing could be suspended from the ceiling or attached to a wall. Baffles all along the inside of the tube help maintain the vacuum that moves the fruit along, and also cushion the fruit and prevent apples from bumping into each other.
Albert said the packers also saw the potential for using a dry bin filler. Typically, water systems are used for filling bins in packing houses, but they try to avoid wetting the fruit to avoid problems such as lenticel damage. The dry bin filler on the harvester can fill 14 to 15 bins per hour. The number of cups is limited horizontally by the harvester’s frame. In a packing house, more cups could be added, increasing the rate to 20 bins per hour.
SmarTouch is now the exclusive distributor in North America for the electronic fruit grading system from Ellips in the Netherlands that was used in the harvester. Albert said such compact, low-cost systems might have a fit for packers that want to replace their vision system without replacing other parts of the packing line, such as their sizer, or could be added to an existing line to improve packing flexibility.