In the first six months of operations at its new 220,000-square-foot apple packing plant, Washington Fruit & Produce Co. has only come across one problem — it is beginning to run out of fruit.
Mikey Hanks, system operator for the “River Road” facility in Yakima, Wash., said that the new lines are so efficient that the company is packing 20% more fruit than it used to, even though it hasn’t added staff. He said Washington Fruit may need to temporarily reduce packing hours because they are beginning to run low on apples.
In the meantime, the facility’s three shifts — each with 120 employees — are working toward a new record.
“We are shooting for 100 bins per hour,” Hanks said June 20. “We’ve been hitting the high 80s most days so far with a few spikes up near 100.”
Hanks said the company traditionally packed about 400,000 bins of apples annually, with 18 to 20 boxes per bin. That volume was one of the factors that lead Washington Fruit & Produce to spend $30 million on the new warehouse/packing operation on River Road, just down the street from its main office in Yakima.
Designing the plant took more than a year, with attention given to minor details such as flush-mounted ceiling lights to minimize dust collection and major components such as a robotic palletizing system. Wireless computer systems and high-tech features are part of every step in the packing process now. Test runs began in October and the plant opened Nov. 1.
“The defect sorter has been just amazing,” Hanks said. “Cameras take 40 pictures (color and infrared) of each piece of fruit and they find defects that the human eye can’t see.”
Ironically, the high-tech sorter hasn’t resulted in more rejects.
“One of the things that our customers like is there are many fewer rejects,” Hanks said. “They also like the traceability that our systems provide.”
That traceability begins with a unique serial number bar codes stamped on all boxes. The robotic palletizing system uses the barcodes to sort grade, color, size and box type. That information is stored along with details about each specific box, including which orchard the fruit came from and the time it was packed. Hanks said the system also tracks the location and shipping destination for each individual box.