BelOrta's new sorting warehouse has been up and running for a few weeks. Its realization was delayed by several months, but the first apples and pears are now passing through the fully automatic optical sorting lines. "It's the world's first facility of its size with such technology. With the new building, we managed to centralize our top fruit sorting in Borgloon, Visé, and Fernelmont in one location," begins BelOrta's Top Fruit Division Head, Laurent De Smedt.
This was a long-term project for the Belgian cooperative that took four years to complete. "Besides the centralization, the project started from the desire to optimize the sorting process to achieve a more refined result, but also from a cost and personnel saving perspective. Space costs money, so we wanted to realize as much capacity in as few square meters as possible."
"We also wanted to minimize forklift traffic. The latest technologies are extremely expensive too. Not every fruit grower can afford that, especially in these times. That's why we invested in this project. To be profitable, you need scale; as a cooperative, we can guarantee that scale," says Laurent.
"Centrally sorting fits perfectly into our efforts to achieve improved value and marketing for our apples and pears. This centralizing of the total Belgian supply, along with our improved, more sustainable storage and new sales systems, means we can guarantee customers more continuity and uniformity," explains Laurent.
The result is a new building with two fully automated sorting lines for apples as well as pears. "After merging with BFV, our cooperative will process about 220 million kilograms of pears and 100 million kilos of apples. Though not everything will be sorted, packed, and transported through this site, much certainly will."
"That requires the necessary sorting capacity. The new apple line will sort ten tons of apples per hour by size and especially quality, and the pear line, eight tons/hour. In addition to the sorting lines, there are two packaging lines to pack products in the appropriate packaging," says De Smedt.
The facility is a world-first. It is the first of its size with the high-tech Globalscan 7 camera and Orphea software. "Both these Maf Roda systems are, of course, designed for the different fruit types' specific requirements. The apples and pears are washed, then automatically transported through the line where optical and infrared cameras assess their internal and external quality."
"The fruit is automatically divided into different classes for the fresh market or industry. Standard and custom specifications can be set for that. We, thus, also limit our residual flows. Finally, the fruit ends up in the appropriate paloxes or directly in another type of final packaging (for pears). After that, the fruit can be transported to clients or further packaged and even repackaged at our Borgloon site," Laurent continues.
Though it was a substantial investment, he insists it will pay for itself. "These days, sorting costs €0.11 to €0.13, regardless of the fruit's quality. The pre-grader can sort lesser qualities out at a significantly lower rate. We must bet on smart technology that allows us to deliver high-quality fruits and vegetables to buyers flexibly."
"This project is a crucial investment for the sector, especially for our affiliated fruit growers. We believe it's important that growers can focus on growing a top product. It's also becoming increasingly challenging to find sorting personnel," Laurent admits. "It's vital for growers to have their fruit sorted externally. And we always do that in close consultation. By building this new warehouse and investing in sorting machines, we hope to be ready for the future."
Another important focal point for the cooperative and its growers is end-user satisfaction. "A consumer who's happy with their purchased fruit's quality and flavor will return. That's the only way to establish a sustainable, future-oriented chain story from field to plate," Laurent concludes.
Here is an impression of the new warehouse tour: