Jul 03, 2019

Eating Elephants

Last month I spent some time with one of our key customers looking over their new packing facility and talking about how their first season had gone with their new toys. A very interesting conversation ensued…

A significant amount of work had gone into the planning for automation in this facility. It is intended to be rolled out over two key phases, with the main pack line and output handling covered off in phase one, and automation around pallet forming and completion being dealt with in phase two. With phase one complete, I was very keen to see how things were lining up for phase two and this is where things got interesting.

The customer is quick to say that phase two will proceed, however they made an interesting discovery along the way. In putting all of the work in up front around how product gets onto and off of the main pack line and making its way to the palletisation area. In doing so they had saved an impressive amount of labour. Now this is not that much of a surprise as this was always one of the intentions, however the unintended consequence is that they created such an efficient pack line in phase one, that the phase two part of the project (consisting of several million bucks more investment) was now going to only save around six more labour units – doesn’t make for a compelling spreadsheet!

This is an unintended consequence of the best kind and by sharing it I am shooting myself in the foot somewhat, but it is an important story to share. More importantly, as I have shared this with colleagues, peers and customers as I move around, I have seen it mirrored in several other situations. At the recent PMA Hort Connections event in Melbourne it was a hot topic. Yes, we can automate up the wazhoo and reduce labour to the largest extent possible, however there are significant wins along the way that have less zeros involved.

Over the last year and the coming one, we are bringing online several tools to assist with incremental improvements in this vein. Maybe the humble act of automating the placing of a tray of fruit into its carton will see you reduce ten head counts? Maybe conveying your cartons away and having them automatically diverted to the appropriate palletising station will save you five?

It doesn’t have to start with reducing thirty labour units in one swoop, afterall there is only one way to eat an elephant…

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