Packing automation success is all in the planning. Embarking on a mission to reconfigure its fresh-produce packing hall at Thrapston, the Morrisons Centre of Excellence – which prepares and delivers 130 million packs of fruit every year to 82 stores – has succeeded in its automation vision and ambition.

British automation specialist Brillopak supported Thrapston at every phase of the five-year programme. In total, Brillopak installed 11 fully integrated fresh-produce packing lines comprising around 40 machines, with equipment and capital investments split across three defined phases.

Rather than piecemeal different technologies together, Thrapston’s site manager at the time, Matthew Peczek, sought a cohesive automation investment approach to increase efficiency, achieve packing consistency and optimise produce quality.

Taking the decision to completely redevelop the factory layout in 2017, Matthew was resolute that all machinery would be designed and placed linearly, with everything coming from the chillers and out to the back end for distribution, in one continuous flow. His linear vision has since been realised. Now, every part of the line faces in the same direction throughout the packing hall.

Having seen the possibilities accomplished when managing the Morrisons Rushden depot, Matthew, now Head of Operations for produce at the company, was confident that Brillopak director David Jahn and his engineering team would see the bigger picture and deliver these transformational benefits. Most importantly, Brillopak was completely aligned to the investment roadmap that assisted Thrapston in reaching its end point.

Phasing in the flow

In 2016, Brillopak delivered stage one – optimising the manual packing of apples into crates. Thrapston commissioned five of Brillopak’s award-winning and ergonomic PAKStations to replace less efficient manual packing and turntable operations.  This was the first step to automation and enabled the site to get familiar with the automation.

To support these apple-packing lines and eliminate any potential bottlenecks, two Crate DESTAKers, five bale arm closers and five double stackers for palletising were also introduced. The result was five integrated packing lines that maintained a consistent packing pace, each feeding out onto the main track to an existing palletising system.

This first phase was intentionally designed as a holding pattern in Thrapston’s automation plan, allowing for the subsequent robotic machines that were to follow. “As a result of the fast payback due to labour efficiency, enhanced produce quality and reduced complaints, the plan was always to replace the PAKStations within two years. Swapping out with three fully automated UniPAKer robotic crate packing systems in phase two,” reflects Matt. It was, he affirms, always central to their produce strategy of improving quality and process efficiency and reducing costs and waste.

Having got the measure of the design requirements and long-term goals at the outset, Brillopak’s Automation Architecture meant that the innovative firm had already factored in the available real estate. The team built the framework of the PAKStations to match the dimensions of the UniPAKer machines, as well as the conveyor infeed and outfeed heights; enabling a seamless and simple swap over, to mitigate any packaging disruption.

We literally pulled out the UniPAKer machines and inserted the robotic machines into the apple lines,” affirms David. Local power requirements and access points, as well as feeds to the main conveyor track for each line had already been considered at the initial due diligence planning phase. Craig Savage who project managed the entire programme, affirms that the devil really was in the detail. “It involved multiple simulations to define the best approach.”

New access doors and platforms were inserted and refrigeration doors were moved. Approximately one fifth of the main track was removed along with the overhead crate feed track. To optimise efficiency a two-tiered conveyor track was proposed. Now, the lower level feeds all the clean empty crates to the 11 packing lines, while the top tier transports filled fresh produce crates to the palletiser.

Another key advantage of this modular line design and phased introduction of machinery was that Brillopak was able to retain and redeploy the existing conveyors, which previously transferred crates to the PAKStations. “From a sustainability perspective, where components can be repurposed, we do, as it boosts the ROI even further,” adds David.

Upscaling on 11 lines

Applying the best practice gained from phases one and two, in 2021 Thrapston completed its full-scale automation transformation with the roll out of six new linear packing lines. Handling a range of flow-wrapped and tray-sealed fresh produce, including pears, tomatoes, apricots, blueberries and grapes, Brillopak delivered a further five UniPAKers, one PAKstation, six bale arm closers, two Crate DESTAKers and six double stackers.

With 40 individual Brillopak machines now on site and running continuously, Matt upholds the value of working with a single and reliable integrator. One that can factor in all the unknowns and deliver innovative yet easy to operate ‘plug and play’ machines that talk seamlessly to each other. In particular, Matt appraises Brillopak’s foresight and deep integration knowledge. “We had a clear vision of how the linear Thrapston packing lines would ultimately look and partnered with the Brillopak engineering team throughout every phase of the process.”

This collaborative teamwork approach is a result of the personal relationship the Morrisons’ fresh produce team, site managers and engineering experts share with Brillopak. Matt expands: “The robotic packing solutions that Brillopak builds are extremely intuitive to operate and very reliable. As testament, our robot potato lines in Gadbrook continue to run as efficiently as the day they went in seven years ago. We know they are always going to work and maintain their efficiency and presentation consistency.”

The smoother and gentler handling of fresh produce has been proven to reduce complaints by over 30 percent and almost instantly, reports the Head of Operations.

However, for Matt, the real Brillopak value comes from dealing with one machinery supplier. “There’s definitely something to be said for Brillopak’s amenable and accommodating approach. Integrating with other suppliers’ equipment is probably the hardest aspect. Yet, this is something I entrust to David and the engineers.

Brillopak will often go above and beyond during the handover to ensure all their machinery is seamlessly integrated with conveyors, downstream camera graders and other equipment. Even when it’s not technically their responsibility. I don’t know of many other integrators that would undertake this level of meticulous service and support before, during or post install,” notes Matt.

Since embarking on the first automation project with Morrisons fresh produce almost 6 years ago, Matt is adamant that this trusting collaboration with Brillopak has helped to accelerate and optimise its packing efficiency.

With all five fresh produce sites now kitted out with end-to-end Brillopak machinery, a side-line benefit is how much the manufacturer has been able to streamline its stockholding of spares and components. “Dealing with one automation provider formed part of our produce directive. From a maintenance and ongoing service perspective, dealing with one or two machinery suppliers, versus liaising with multiple contacts is evidentially more straightforward. Being able to pre-plan projects and roll automation platforms out in phases as part of a wider, aligned plan certainly helps to mitigate investment risks,” ends Matt.

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