Packaging, produce and partnerships: An industry-university collaboration helps a produce operation stay competitive

Tuesday November 19, 2013
Written by Michelle Morra-Carlisle
Not your typical widget, tomatoes are fragile, have a short shelf life and come in many shapes, colours and sizes. Processing the highly popular “cocktail cherry” variety was a challenge for Clifford Produce of Leamington, Ont. Varying weather conditions were creating ever-varying tomatoes, and it didn’t help that customers’ orders differed by the types of packaging they wanted and the combinations of same-sized or different-sized, same-coloured or different-coloured tomatoes to be packaged. Adding to this challenge was that in order to stay fresh, the produce arriving from the fields had to be processed quickly.

Doing their best were six workers — one per tomato colour, plus two more for labelling and other tasks — who had the highly intensive manual task of packaging the tomatoes. But their efforts weren’t necessarily good enough given the competition — the much lower-paid labourers of Mexican producers. There had to be a better way to sort and package the product from southern Ontario farms.

To keep up with demand and stay competitive, the folks at Clifford knew they needed a more automated solution. The need to better manage a variety of products meant the system would have to be flexible, adaptable and responsive to change. Ideally, it would also be affordable. While machines already exist for this sort of process, they cost up to $250,000. The limited acreage of this modest Leamington company didn’t warrant such an expense.

Fortunately, Clifford Produce found a modular, financially viable solution. Its design is fairly simple: At the start of the line, employees dump the various types of small tomatoes into a round, table-top surface. The surface is divided into compartments — one for cherry tomatoes, one for yellow ones, another for zebra-striped green ones, and so on. Once the compartments are loaded, an employee turns the table to start mixing. Tomatoes gradually fall from a chute onto a conveyor where workers grade them for quality and drop them into clamshell containers.

Angelo Fallone, financial analyst at Clifford Produce, says this “fusion tomato packing line” isn’t highly automated, but has dramatically improved the process.

“There’s even a nifty little piece of metal that grabs the lid and closes it as the conveyor belt moves toward the end of the line,” he says.

So how did the company score the new line?

Research meets commerce

Having once sponsored a project involving the University of Windsor’s Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS) Centre of Research Excellence, the staff at Clifford Produce were familiar with the centre’s engineers and decided to re-connect with them. These experts conduct leading-edge research in manufacturing systems and related topics — from product design to manufacturing and the complete product life cycle. Surely they might be up to devising a better way to sort and package cherry tomatoes.

“Clifford first sponsored an undergraduate capstone project about improving the productivity of some of their operations, not related to packaging cherry tomatoes,” says Professor Hoda ElMaraghy, the IMS Centre’s director and co-founder. “Then after they became familiar with the capabilities of the IMS Centre, they saw an opportunity to work with us on the cherry tomatoes packaging challenge.”

The IMS Centre engages in many projects with industry, networks and centres of research excellence, as well as international collaborations and exchanges. ElMaraghy’s team welcomed the challenge. As the principal investigator for the Clifford project, she applied for a grant from the FedDev Ontario Applied Research and Commercialization Initiative. Clifford Produce, which would provide significant in-kind contributions toward the project activities, would act as the sponsoring company.

The project qualified for the grant. After receiving it, a team of engineering researchers led by ElMaraghy worked to design and develop a modular, efficient packaging system. They tailored it to the company’s need to be more agile in responding to changing seasonal supply and an increasing variety of produce packages and their contents. For example, compartments can easily be added or removed from the new machine.

“A lot of machines built for the agricultural industry are not configurable,” Fallone says. “If we need to double our machine, we can pretty much do it, no problem.”

And while the machine hasn’t been installed yet at Clifford Produce — only a prototype existed at time of print — the company does plan to implement the new machine as soon as possible.

Thanks to the FedDev grant, and by not having to purchase a far more expensive packaging system, Clifford Produce was able to lower its costs by two dollars a box — close to 40 per cent — and obtain a unique product. The benefits turned out to be more than just financial.

“There’s a two-fold effect,” Fallone says. “By removing three people from that process, we [are] able to station them someplace where they would be more productive. The other benefit is that the job gets done faster.”

The machine also does a better job. Whereas the old way was to have each person on the line drop a certain variety of tomato into containers as they passed, the final product looked layered. With the new system, each clamshell container has a real mixture of shapes and colours.

“Beyond simple cost benefits, Clifford was able to be involved in the design and research phase in a much more intimate way than with a traditional supplier — locally designed and produced packaging machines can start a local industry to replace the imports,” ElMaraghy says.

The cost of the packaging machine was roughly 20 per cent of that of a comparable commercial machine that wouldn’t even be modular, flexible or reconfigurable. The company is expected to save at least 60 per cent in labour while achieving the same production rate.

If such an affordable machine was relatively simple, why do so many facilities go without tailor-made solutions? Fallone believes it’s simply a case of where to allocate resources within the sector.

“Traditionally, the focus hasn’t been so much on improving operational efficiency as it has been on improving relationships for sales,” he says. “People often take the path of least resistance.”

One interesting aspect of the new tomato line is that its creators borrowed from their knowledge outside of the agricultural sector. While working on this project for Clifford Produce, ElMaraghy says, “We applied the same engineering principles of manufacturing systems — flexibility and changeability, automation, product and machinery design — normally applied in the automotive industry, for example.”

Other areas of the agricultural sector could certainly apply similar solutions to improve their productivity and competitiveness locally and globally. According to ElMaraghy, this type of made-to-measure, ultra-adaptable automation creates efficiencies that can help grow a business in the face of fierce competition from abroad. She also sees potential for manufacturing the machine her team designed here in Canada. Why not start a new high-tech industry to replace the predominantly imported machines, and create jobs and wealth in Canada?

As for the collaborative nature of this success story, other manufacturers, too, can benefit from knowing the possibilities that exist in the research realm.

“There are many resources, talents and expertise in universities and research centres that can be utilized to solve some of their challenges and develop new products, processes and systems,” ElMaraghy says. “Manufacturers should explore these possibilities.”

Fallone believes that the University of Windsor was interested in the challenge at Clifford Produce because southern Ontario’s agricultural industry is second only to its automotive industry. The university wants to promote growth, not just in one sector, and help the area flourish. What better way than to address a facility’s particular needs and help it thrive?

“Having a machine that allows you to reconfigure, respond to various supply and conditions, and be able to organize processes by managing product variety,” Fallone says, “is the future of engineering.”

Michelle Morra-Carlisle is a freelance journalist and corporate writer based in Toronto.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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