LINDEN, Calif. Lugo, Italy-based Unitec S.P.A. showed off two of its most recently installed computerized optical cherry sizing and grading lines May 29 to a busload of packinghouse representatives from California, Oregon, Washington and Chile.
The May 29 tour at O-G Packing, Stockton, involved a 32-lane sorter, and Morada Produce Co., has a 40-lane sorter.
Representatives from both grower-packer-shippers described the resulting product as "consistent" and talked of improved packouts and reduced labor.
In addition to optical sizing, both lines have Cherry Vision, Unitec"s proprietary computerized grading system that uses photography, infrared imaging and lasers to detect both external and internal defects.
This is all done in a non-destructive way that leaves the fruit unscathed, said Luca Montanari, Unitec vice president.
Computers process the data and then kick out the cherry in the appropriate lane.
The U.S. is one of the newer markets for the Italian company, which has already installed 329 lanes for 25 different Chilean cherry packers, he said.
In the U.S., the firm has installed a total of 96 lanes at five different packers, with the first one being Northern Fruit, Wenatchee, Wash., in 2012, Montanari said.
What"s driving the technology is a tight labor supply and a focus on quality, such as for exports, he said.
Luis Rodriguez, an operator at Morada Produce, said the computerized system takes the human element out of grading.
"One of the things we like about this is the quality of the fruit at 8 o"clock is great, where at 10 o"clock at night it"s still great. Over there," he said, pointing to the adjacent hand-grading line, "It"s great at 8 o"clock but at 10 o"clock at night the quality has dropped."
On the packing line with the Unitec system, production has increased by about 30%, and labor has decreased by about 40%, Rodriguez said. Packouts also have increased.
The dual-camera system can view 30 cups holding cherries per second. With 40 lines, the entire system can inspect up to 1,200 cherries per second or about 30 tons per hour, he said.
In coming years, Skip Foppiano, Morada Produce owner, said he planned to install another computerized system to replace the current main hand-grading line as well as another system for a smaller packing line.
Daniel Moznett, director of marketing for Grower Direct Marketing LLC, O-G Packing"s marketing arm, said being able to view the internal quality of the fruit was amazing.
"This machine does such a great job of ensuring the fruit that goes in the box is just beautiful," he said.
O-G Packing was running its four cherry lines through a single computerized grader.
The grower-packer-shipper is analyzing the volume sorted this year and plans to install at least one additional Unitec machine, possibly next year, Moznett said. The number of lanes will depend on the outcome of the analysis.
Joe McDonald, director of operations for Farmington Fresh LLC, Stockton, said he was on the tour to see graders and sorters in action.
"I"m hear to evaluate the shed business and the equipment for them," he said.
McDonald said he was impressed by the technology, noting the beautiful color of the fruit being packed.
"I think it"s more about the right quality going into the right box and getting value for that quality," he said.
Brian Birdsall, general manager of cherry operations for Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash., said he was traveling around California for the week looking at different technologies available on the market.
"The best way to do it is when it"s operating," he said.
Sage currently uses mechanical sizing and hand sorting.