(June 3, 9:58 a.m.) REEDLEY, Calif. — Governmental red tape proved to be little more than a speed bump for Aweta-Autoline Inc., Reedley, Calif., as it scurried to expand its sprawling manufacturing facility while simultaneously building massive sorter-packing lines for Sun Pacific Shippers, Los Angeles, Calif.
The order for the new lines arrived as Aweta-Autoline was putting the finishing touches on its new parts and shipping building, the company’s second major expansion in as many years, said Kelvin Farris, sales manager for Aweta-Autoline. Sun Pacific needed four giant 194 foot-long sorter-packing lines for its Exeter, Calif. packing facility.
The equipment had to be manufactured and installed before the start of the 2008 citrus season, Farris said, a hard-to-meet deadline if Aweta-Autoline was first forced to trudge through obtaining the myriad permits for the company’s planned 10,000 square-foot expansion of its manufacturing building.
“We laid 10,000 square feet of concrete, cut a couple of doors in the existing manufacturing building and erected temporary shade for our workers,” Farris said.
As a result, the first of the long lines, each with five lanes, was scheduled to be headed for Exeter in May.
The speed of the new packing lines has increased to 13 cups per second, Farris said.
“Twenty photos are taken of each piece of fruit as it’s rotated in the sorter, which measures size, color and grade,” he said. “The sorter’s computer program sifts through a total of 43 different combinations and directs each piece of fruit to be dropped into the proper line.”
The skyrocketing complexity of the sorters created a temporary dilemma.
“As they became more sophisticated, the amount of data transferred from cameras to computers became huge,” Farris said.
The solution, he said, was to install fire wire-type cable between the cameras and the computers.
Domestic expansion is not limited to Reedley. The company’s Yakima, Wash. facility, formerly limited to parts and service, recently completed a 30,000 square-foot expansion to permit the manufacturing of ancillary equipment for the sorter-packing lines, Farris said.
Nearly every piece of every Aweta-Autoline sorter-packing line is manufactured at the Reedley plant, even the cameras. The exception is the circuit boards, which company president Art Lopez said are designed by the Aweta-Autoline staff and sourced out to a manufacturer.
“Then each and every board is tested when it gets to Reedley before it’s OK’d for installation in one of our packing lines,” Lopez said.
The hearts of the sorters, the motherboards, receive additional scrutiny. After the initial quality control check, the motherboards, Lopez said, are tested in simulators located in heated rooms.
“We run what condition they’re going into,” Lopez said.
The Reedley plant specializes in sorter-packing lines for stone fruit, citrus and apples. But the company is looking to expand into other commodities, Lopez said.
It’s been a heady climb for the company since the mid-1980s when stone fruit grower-shipper Bob Regier suggested to friend and electrician Jack Hiebert that packing time and labor could be reduced if they could develop machinery that could size the fruit. Hiebert was up to the challenge, and Autoline was born.
As the new company designed and manufactured fruit packing lines in the U.S., Holland-based Aweta was duplicating the effort, Farris said. Aweta’s packing lines were designed for vegetables, mostly tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers, he said. In the mid 1990s, the two companies realized the benefits if their engineers could share information, Lopez said.
“We have six full-time research and development engineers on staff here in Reedley,” he said.
In recent years, those engineers developed a two-optic sorter system. An upgraded version went into production last fall, Lopez said. The first of the sorters kicks out blemished fruit before it gets to the wash cycle, he said.
The Reedley operation has more than 300 customers, Lopez said. Most of them are in the U.S., but the company also has customers in Canada, South Africa, South America and Australia, he said. The Aweta operation in Holland concentrates on European customers.
“Efficiency is the big focus,” Lopez said.
That focus has shortened the return-on-investment time.
“For most commodities, the payback averages 2.7 years,” Lopez said. “For some commodities, the payback is less than two years.”
The machines don’t necessarily reduce labor force, however.
“Grower-packer-shippers have found they can train and retain employees in more sophisticated positions,” Farris said.