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Nico Treurnicht & Cornel Oosthuizen – Ergopak

South African scale technology finds foothold in European and Moroccan packhouses

Nico Treurnicht of Ergopak, a scale control system manufacturer exclusively distributed in Europe by Dutch Weighing Company, sees packhouse agility as the fourth large wave shaping fruit exports.

"The table grape industry has gone through four waves: the first one was getting productivity and speed of packing on par. The second wave was to combat wastage in the packhouse, the third to curb give-away when packers pack more than the specified amount. In my eyes, the fourth wave is packhouse agility: the ability to jump from one form of packaging to the next, and it has become an important parameter," he says, noting that these days packhouses sometimes receive new packing instructions by the hour. "Your changeover has to run absolutely smoothly. The people and the technology in your packhouse need to remain in motion, changing over from one form of packaging to another in the way that a relay team passes the baton."

Through an "elementary but interesting" application of artificial intelligence, Ergopak developed a smart scale which allows employees to pack quickly and accurately, while management have a high-level and traceable overview of the entire weighing functionality within a packhouse.

Solving cognitive fatigue in the packhouse
As an ergonomist formerly at the engineering faculty of the University of Stellenbosch, Treurnicht investigated the human side of a packhouse. A decade ago he was approached by Karsten Boerdery, a grape and citrus grower in the Northern Cape to solve a packhouse dilemma: why does the pace of packing slow down so considerably when 500g punnets are packed compared to the packing of 4.5kg and 9kg cartons?

The reason, he and his research students found, was cognitive fatigue: having to guess how many more grapes to add or subtract to get to the desired weight, while keeping in mind that a number like 487g is less than 522g, a numerical concept that can be onerous to grasp for staff with low numeracy levels.

The concept of an interface showing a visual representation of the weight of the punnet, along with an indication of how far below or above the punnet still is off the mark, caught on and several thousand of their scale controllers are used in South African grape, berry and vegetable packhouses.

Three separate areas – a bar graph, the actual weight (or number of berries) and thirdly an indication of the margin of divergence - on the screen convey information to the packer. "Between these three indicators we have never encountered a packer who was not able to put together her own 'recipe' to make use of the system," says Cornel Oosthuizen, electronic designer at Ergopak.

The system can be set to combination packing, when a grape punnet is halfway packed, and put on hold until the system identifies a bunch with the required weight to bring it to target. Moreover, the response time of the system is rather quick: in the order of two-tenths of a second, which feels immediate to a user.

When making up punnets with various components, like in the cut fruit industry, the scales are set up in sequence: if the first ingredient's weight falls in the top end of the permitted weight range, it is communicated to the following scales which adjust their allowable ranges for the following ingredients, avoiding an overfull punnet and giveaways.

Management web reporting gives Ergopak the edge
The newest range, the Aquila range, is a touchscreen system that can be plugged into any platform, supplemented with a web reporting management platform, Panorama, which gives Ergopak the edge over their competitors and enables holistic yet granular management of the packing process, Oosthuizen says.

"The whole idea of the Ergopak system," he adds, "is that it is all connected within a network, serving the entire packhouse from the point where grapes enter in crates (which are individually scanned and connected to the specific pickers in the field) to where grapes are palletized, where we can place another scale for a full picture of how much entered and how much exited the packhouse."

He says that their exports have picked up momentum since last year, and Ergopak is now in use in packhouses in Morocco and in fourteen European countries.

Ergopak's attention to the human use of their technology has led them to pursue interesting lines of inquiry, for instance how to prevent a packline worker from repeatedly weighing the same punnet. Conversely, how to instruct the technology to disregard a possible erroneous interpretation when rejecting a legitimately packed punnet when consecutive punnets have the exact same weight.

"Our system can distinguish between punnets, even if their weight is the same. That feature gives us a bit of an edge over our competitors," Treurnicht explains. "It is not good for morale when packhouse employees see that one worker is gaming the system and getting away with it."

Ergopak will be at stand 30 and 31 at the BerriesZA annual technical & trade symposium on 30 & 31 May 2024, as well as at the Nampo Expo in September.

For more information:
Nico Treurnicht
Tel: +27 84 806 0708
Email: [email protected]
Cornel Oosthuizen
Tel: +27 71 474 5509
Email: [email protected]