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Automated Apples
August 1, 2014   
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Fruit sorting machine maker Sorter from the central city of Radom has developed new technology that helps select the best fruit, group it according to color, shape and size, and then pack it. When working on the technology, Sorter used financial support from the European Union and Polish government funds, including a grant from the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR).

The NCBiR’s Go Global program has enabled Sorter to show some of its innovations at a major trade fair in Berlin, Germany.

Many growers in Poland hire seasonal workers to sort fruit manually. Machines can significantly speed up the process and eliminate mistakes. Some growers have already decided to buy such fruit sorting machines, according to Sorter CEO Michał Ziomek.
Poland is the largest exporter of apples in the European Union. “If growers use our equipment, Poland will be able to offer a lot more apples to European retail chains and stores,” says Ziomek.

Sorter began developing its fruit sorting machines in 2010. At the beginning of last year, the company received zl.10 million from the NCBiR in co-financing to develop a new fruit sorting system. The project, the total cost of which is zl.25 million, got under way in 2013. It is being carried out by a team of 14 and is expected to be completed in June next year.
The Go Global program was a chance for the company to draw the attention of international customers to its designs, which up to then were only known in Poland. A range of sorting machines equipped with the company’s proprietary Visort system was exhibited at the Fruit Logistica fair in Berlin earlier this year using a grant of almost zl. 200,000 from the NCBiR.

“If an apple is bruised, the damage may not show yet but will be visible in two days,” says Ziomek. “Our machine will discover this right away and such a fruit will be immediately set aside for processing. At the moment, all apples picked in orchards are kept in refrigerated warehouses. But that is not necessary. Good fruit intended for direct consumption must be chosen immediately, and the remaining fruit should be directed for processing. Our calculations show that if our sorting machines were only 2 percent more efficient than people they would bring Polish producers over zl.100 million in annual savings.”

In order to carry out deliveries within a few hours, growers need high-performance, reliable machines, making it possible to quickly select a specific class of fruit. An order from a large store usually specifies the number of kilograms of fruit, the way it should be packed and arranged, as well as the size and color. Human workers are unable to meet all these conditions in a short time, Ziomek says, while a machine can sort up to a dozen or so tons of fruit an hour.

When a supermarket chain places an order for five truckloads of apples to be delivered quickly, the grower often cannot carry out the order because he does not have the people to handle it fast, Ziomek says. The sorting machine solves the problem. Such machines are usually bought by groups of farmers rather than a single farmer because they cost up to several hundred thousand zlotys. The machine is not excessively computerized and farms at least 7 hectares in size should be interested in it, according to Ziomek.

The technology co-financed by the NCBiR involves the development of five different systems for sorting fruit. The first prototype designs are undergoing tests in laboratory conditions. The machine will be able to sort other fruit and vegetables as well, including tomatoes, cucumbers, and cherries.

The project is roughly at the halfway point. Sorter has already filed for a patent for various parts of the technology. The company’s R&D department is working on solutions to some problems frequently encountered by growers. Under development are also systems for harvesting raspberries and currants. The company’s team of engineers and designers is working in consultation with experts from the Warsaw University of Technology, including Prof. Cezary Zieliński and Prof. Włodzimierz Kasprzak, who are helping create control software for the sorting machines.

Work is also being consulted with Prof. Ryszard Hołownicki from the Research Institute of Horticulture in Skierniewice in central Poland and experts from the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, who are expected to help Sorter go commercial with its technology.

In addition to funds from the NCBiR, Sorter received more than zl. 7 million in support from the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development and zl. 4.7 million under the European Union’s Innovative Economy Operational Programme.

Karolina Olszewska
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