Automated palletizing system bears fruit for Wonderful Citrus

The system has increased line productivity by 15%.

  By ·

Wonderful Citrus is best known for its sweet, easy-peel California mandarins, which are marketed under the Wonderful Halos brand. To handle increased production, the company designed the world’s largest citrus packing house from the ground up while evaluating best practices in manual and automated processes against productivity goals.

“To process the volume of fruit at our target throughput rate, we needed a fully automated process throughout the facility, which meant an automated palletizing system was a major requirement,” says Jason Blake, vice president of California packing operations at Wonderful Citrus.

Wonderful Citrus presented a unique set of design challenges. In particular, automated palletizing equipment needed to handle multiple packaging types gently and securely at a target throughput rate of 40 to 50 cases per minute. The company chose a single-source provider of automated solutions and intelligent software.

“We looked at the overall design of the equipment, speed, efficiency, productivity, safety and reliability,” says Pete McKenzie, director of design and start up for the Wonderful Citrus Halos facility. “[The provider’s] system scored the highest on all of those, and that’s what drove them to the top of our list.”

Through collaboration with third-party corrugate suppliers and Wonderful Citrus purchasing and engineering teams, the supplier provided custom-engineered palletizers with package handling modifications. The equipment could securely nest cases at target throughput rates. In addition, the modifications enabled Wonderful Citrus to automate the legacy manual process of column stack nesting corrugate tabbed cases. Wonderful Citrus required each palletizer to complete strict acceptance testing to evaluate throughput, uptime, reliability, pallet integrity and safety.

“We did 30 days of testing on the first three palletizing lines, but by the time we got to the fourth and fifth, [the supplier] was doing such a good job that we felt confident that all lines would deliver without going through acceptance testing,” McKenzie adds.

Following testing, the provider instituted a training program to ensure facility employees could handle the influx of fruit once the mandarin season began. Using a mix of hands-on and classroom training, instructors taught employees everything from equipment operation to troubleshooting and maintenance. Then, after reviewing specialized training manuals and completing instruction, employees took performance exams to become certified operators.

“The training and materials provided became the benchmark of what we expected from other vendors,” says Gaby Beasley, production manager at Wonderful Citrus.

The shift from manual to automated palletizing resulted in a line productivity increase of 15%. Furthermore, the facility’s rate of 40 to 50 cases per minute exceeds any level possible through manual processes. And, in anticipation for future growth and expansion, the facility and system design can scale to accommodate greater fruit volume.

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