When EastPack’s new, fully-automated, coolstore became operational in mid-May not one person was inside it.
The first fully-automated coolstore for the kiwifruit industry – located at EastPack’s Quarry Rd operation – works using robots and artificial intelligence to check, move and position pallets of fruit into two rooms, each with a tall tower of racking that reaches 14m high.
The entire structure is 51m by 41m, is 18.2m high and has the capacity to store 1.2 million trays.
Like every business in the kiwifruit industry, EastPack – New Zealand’s largest grower-owned kiwifruit and avocado post-harvest provider – is facing huge growth of fruit volume in the next five years.
EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson says during the 12 months of 2018’s season his company packed a record 41.1 million trays across six sites in the Bay of Plenty region.
“During the last three years we’ve channelled significant investment towards packing, pre-cool, and coolstore capacity to keep ahead of rapidly increasing fruit volumes, particularly Gold.
“The industry is looking at significant growth of gold fruit – reaching more than 130 million trays in 2025 – and much of our time here is spent planning on how we will deal with this.”
The new fully automated coolstore is an investment in storage capacity for bigger fruit volumes.
Hamish says the Swedish system is present at one other facility in NZ – an Auckland-based salad/vegetable container company.
“When fruit comes in from harvest to our packhouses it is anywhere between 16-20 degrees Celsius – then we need to store it for an extended length of time. The key tool we use to do this is temperature.
“We try to get fruit down to around five degrees Celsius as quickly as possible by putting it in a forced precool facility so within 24 hours it’s down to around five degrees Celsius.
“Then we take it very slowly down to almost zero degrees in the coolstore – this means we can store fruit anywhere from six to eight months. Most fruit is stored for a maximum of six months.
“This new coolstore is what we term a ‘lights-out’ coolstore – it has no people inside it and works with a series of robotics.
“First, a forklift driver drops a pallet onto a conveyor outside the coolstore – it conveys inside and cameras check the pallet because if it is twisted it will not fit inside the racking.
“And we actually can’t send people in to get it out – you need a special recovery team for that. So the pallet has to be absolutely square. If a pallet is twisted, it rejects it.
If accepted, it is stored using a set of pre-programmed algorithms – or requirements. “Robots ferry the pallet to the crane, which goes up and down the middle of the racking. It lifts a pallet to the preferred height and smaller shuttles carry the pallets into the racking and deposit them.
“Based on the rules given, the algorithms find the optimal way to put it away – we don’t.”
“When we need to fill an order we instruct the robots and they will assemble the pallets ready for us to load into containers.”
Hamish says the coolstore is a blueprint for EastPack’s planning to meet huge future demand. “This new coolstore will satisfy predicted demand of an extra 1.2 million trays of fruit next season – but the season after we will need another one of these to meet demand.
“So we’re already planning the next one. We’re looking at the possibility of putting another on this site. But every site needs more cool-storage – so where do you start?”
EastPack has three packhouse sites in Te Puke, and one each in Katikati, Edgecumbe and Opotiki.