Can you run an entire onion packhouse with just a handful of people? MSP Onions has proven it is, indeed, possible. This Dutch company had a new packhouse built two years ago. In it, machines, software, and intelligent networks have taken over labor-intensive tasks. With the completion of a sizable pallet transport system, the facility's internal logistics are now fully automated.
At peak capacity, as many as 1,000 tons of onions pass through the MSP Onion plant in the Netherlands per day. They sort, pack, and export onions for the global onion market. Thanks to the smart factory, the company can provide its customers with quality onions for their programs.
"We run from early in the morning until late at night without anyone touching the onions. Before, we could pack 80,000 tons of onions with 30 people. Now, five people can process 200,000 tons of onions. We have a 'no-touch policy'. That's a great advantage, certainly in these Covid times," says MSP's Lindert Moerdijk.
What led to this massive investment? The changing climate. It poses an ever-increasing threat to onions. "We have to endure long wet and dry periods. That puts stress on the onions and is disastrous for their quality. Manual sorting doesn't help because the current machines cannot see into the product. A natural product requires flexibility and craftsmanship. At its heart? Using innovative sorting technology for improved product quality." In March 2018, MSP drove their new factory's first pile. Two years later, the first onions rolled off the plant's conveyor belt.
Lindert is proud of his 'Factory of the Future'. He, his father, two uncles, and two nephews run the company. This investment is a huge step forward for the business. "Customer requirements are becoming increasingly stringent. And they each have specific wishes. We have an innovative sorting machine and smart software."
"We can, therefore, guarantee quality all year round. And everything can be traced live." Another unusual feature is the automation of their internal logistics. That saves considerably on transport movements. Until recently, drivers with forklifts were the last to handle the onions. The arrival of a Symach pallet transport system means the factory's internal logistics is now fully automated.
Automatically put in the correct spot to be loaded
"We've always wanted the onions to be automatically transported from start to finish through the factory. Only the last bit - moving the pallets from the palletizing lines to the loading docks - was missing. We initially considered robots or AGVs*. But these aren't yet fast enough to keep up with our throughput. At the beginning of the year, we sat down with Symach again. They then designed a comprehensive pallet conveyor system for us," says Lindert.
This new system consists of 19 buffer lines and two shuttles. That means 19 trucks' loads can be prepared. Not only fully automatically, but all at the same time. "Software controls the shuttles. They move along the palletizing lines, bringing the pallets to the correct buffer line. Each buffer line has room for a complete load. It can even prepare mixed loads," explains Johnny de Bat of Symach.
Symach specializes in cost-effective palletizers and bagging machines that increase production. It is part of the Barry Wehmiller company. They loved being able to realize the final piece of this new plant. "We've supplied palletizers and wrapping machines before. But this project is quite special. We've never delivered a pallet conveyor system of this size before."
The complete system needed about 200 motors and almost 500 rollers. And that is where Symach's biggest challenge lay. "We had a lot of parts in stock. Unfortunately, however, we couldn't prevent the raw material shortage from playing a part. There was a shortage of, particularly, chips. In the end, we decided to deliver the system in phases. That was in consultation with MSP Onions. That was so that they could still start using it immediately. The last parts should arrive any day now. Then we can complete the project," adds Johnny.
However, linking the pallet transport system to MSP Onions' software went exceptionally well. "Eqontrol controls the whole plant. We connected our machine's control to that software system. It's especially important that the shuttles are properly adjusted. They mustn't get in each other's way. And they must always bring the pallets to the right buffer line. Fortunately, this went smoothly from the get-go. It's great to see how quietly this system runs. We're pleased that we could contribute to this onion factory's complete automation."
Making a difference
Lindert is more than pleased with this pallet transport system. "We've never had to work as fast as we've had to recently. And the system ran perfectly. It's fantastic that so many loads can be prepared automatically. A container is loaded within ten minutes on average. That speeds up the entire handling process. This system fits perfectly within our vision. We aim to use it to make a difference in the onion sector," he concludes.
BW Packaging Systems
*Automated Guided Vehicles, i.e., driverless vehicles