A packaging and processing company that is bringing a new fruit and vegetable grader to the Australian market says it has received a phenomenal response from local growing and packing companies.
Auspouch is in partnership with Italian company Zetapack, which is supplying the machines and hopes to have its first customer up and running with the new technology by January, at their Victorian property.
"We haven't pushed (the marketing) along too far at this stage," Mr Waterson said. "With just mailing some initial information, we have had a response rate of around 25 per cent from Australia and New Zealand, which I think is quite remarkable these days, because people are often bombarded with information. It is looking like this solution is going to be well accepted. It is a good stepping stone for those who want to grade their own fruit, and value-add themselves, with low investment, both financially and technologically. It's a quality-built product from people who have been doing this a long time and can scale up from one tonne an hour to five tonnes an hour. The first line will be leaving Italy in four weeks, and our launch customer is so happy he is willing to allow others to see how effective the machine works."
Image source: Zetapack grading machines demonstration video
Mr Waterson added that it is very cost-effective and timely; instead of a yearlong vendor selection process like some of the bigger graders, this model is manufactured within three months, and reduces the cost from millions of dollars to as small as AU$200,000, depending on the scale of the machine that is required.
The machine can handle a wide range of fruits and vegetables, from the long-shaped cucumbers, right down to small delicate berries. It can even grade bunches, such as grapes and cherries, and give more precision in terms of weights for packing. While it can handle fruit at all levels of maturity, allowing businesses to pack closer to the peak ripeness without damaging the fruit.
"Fruit grading is becoming more and more important because supermarkets are specifying what is acceptable and what is not," Mr Waterson said. "That can be not only quality but size - there is a lot more of a focus turning towards size. So, it is becoming more and more important for fruit growers to be able to grade their fruit correctly. Historically, it would have been a very large mechanical grader that passes the fruit through a range of mechanical and electronical checks, then sorts fruit into various grades. That solution can often be a multi-million-dollar investment and there is a lot of fruit that is unsuitable, and can easily be damaged, or unusual shapes - for example, not every pear is the same shape or have features such as storks."
Another advantage of this new grader, according to Mr Waterson, is that it cuts down on the need for changing mechanical parts for smaller niche products that are in small volumes - therefore not only saving time, but also electricity, and increasing productivity.
"For me, and a market the size of Australia, we need to not only cater for delicate fruit but also niche fruits and smaller runs," he said. "When you don't have the scale to put in a big grader, or the financial means, or you want to run it alongside the main grader and you don't want to change it over. It is small and quite versatile, so it can cater to all sorts of fruits and vegetables and doesn't have all the changeable parts. It is also low in power and cheap to operate. It is a more purpose-built piece of equipment for those wanting to run on a smaller scale."
The grader still has human involvement; Mr Waterson says the machine can determine the fruit grade really well, while the human can delicately handle the fruit.
"It still requires the human to pick up the fruit and put it in the final packing format," Mr Waterson explained. "The human packs the fruit, but the machine makes the decisions. It is hard for people to be objective over a long shift; especially determining measurements, colour and diameter of each individual piece of fruit. The machine will grade on either the weight, colour or diameter of the fruit - or a combination of those - then it will assign the fruit to a human. There is up to nine humans assigned to a machine; so, five might be on 'Grade A' and the machine will only alert them to items they should be taking or picking up. The rest will pass them with no indication. Any Grade A fruit that is missed on the first time will just keep going around again until it is picked up."
Mr Waterson adds that Auspouch's partnership came about through its network with a group of Italian companies, who he says see each other in terms of collaboration rather than competition.
"We already work with companies that Zetapack would like to target because we supply products packed in packaging lines and elements that are common to both of us," he said. "So, it was just elementary that both of us work together. We have some common customers and common international partners that alert us to each other."
It is hoped that the grader will be on display at a number of virtual trade shows in coming months.