VHM crop handling system cuts labour requirements

A picture of the VHM set up

Two new box filling and stacking systems have helped one Cambridgeshire business cut back on grading line staff at a time when labour is in short supply.

Sutton-based P J Lee & Sons produces about 34,000t of late harvest maincrop varieties each year, with harvest scheduled in a six-week window before the first frosts in November.

See also: Seed potato supply headaches underline need for fewer varieties

With such a high-pressure harvest, the packhouse and grading lines must be efficient, and the operation has typically required some 125 staff, many of whom are seasonal workers.

Recent Brexit-related difficulties getting seasonal workers to fill roles on the farm’s four grading lines have resulted in an appraisal of how the firm’s harvest operation could be maintained with a lower headcount.

Dutch system

As part of the solution, the business has invested in two box filling and stacking systems from Dutch company VHM, supplied by nearby Standen Imports in Ely.

The system comprises two VHM Stackrs, a VHM Mono Fillr and a VHM in/out roller conveyor. During operation, four or five empty boxes are loaded onto the Stackrs, which then feed them one by one across the Mono Fillr hopper box filler.

The hopper fills up with potatoes and then begins to unload into the box as it is gradually lowered before the hopper is filled again for the following box.

Boxes are filled to a desired weight via a unique twin funnel design, ensuring the box is evenly loaded. 

Full boxes then move to the second Stackr, which stacks the boxes two high ready to be taken away for loading into store by a forklift.

With the farm’s previous system, one grading line filling 1.25t boxes off two box fillers required two forklift drivers, two box levellers and one or two more forklift drivers to move boxes into store.

With the new VHM system, this has been cut to just one forklift driver and one checker, effectively reducing headcount from six to two per machine.

Accurate weighing

Christopher Lee says Fillr’s auto weigh system weighs each load in the hopper before discharging into the box, so box weight is very accurate and helps optimise storage space.

“Empty boxes can be loaded and waiting, and the Stackr is so precise that the boxes are stacked better, are properly finished and ready for movement into storage.

“We have eradicated much of the adjustment time required in ensuring boxes are stacked accurately and safely. Plus, the whole system is touchscreen controlled and is very easy and intuitive to use,” Mr Lee explains.

A concern before the purchase of a new system was its ability to handle different box sizes, as the business currently handles five different box types. Otherwise, it would need to invest in 18,000 new boxes to replace current stock.

The VHM system is fully programmable to handle bespoke box sizes, and at setup, the operator can preset programmes for the different sizes. This alters pick-up, grab, and drop points for each box type.

There was also a concern about the flow of older English boxes through the system, but the farm worked with VHM to adapt the system to prevent them from catching and snagging during operation.

Bespoke modifications

Modifications included extra chain drives on the rollers to give boxes extra momentum and has resulted in few issues so far.

Tweaks were also made to minimise tuber damage, with quality requirements and damage tolerance levels lower in Britain than on the continent.

On top of operational benefits, Mr Lee has also seen benefits for health and safety, with less forklift traffic and pedestrians around the yard and full automation leading to a calmer operating environment.

The system is also remote control operated, so can be stopped at any time by the line manager and an auto stop system detects if someone is too close and halts the whole process, effectively eradicating injury risk.

Financially, Mr Lee says the system has stacked up well.

“From a headcount reduction point of view alone, we will break even on the purchase of the system in two and a half six-week seasons.

“This may even be improved, as I am planning on running the two systems next to each other next season in an attempt to trim another forklift operator,” he adds.

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