Companies that grow and process the vegetables we consume have to be more agile and efficient than ever, as markets change and the availability of workers decreases. California produce company Bonipak has met grower needs and boosted production with a custom-designed Brussels sprouts packing and sorting line, built by electrical contractor Classic Electric, Nipomo, Calif. The electrical contractor designed, built and programmed the automated system over the course of two months, in a race against the Brussels sprouts that were growing in California fields.
Classic Electric doesn’t say no to challenging projects, said the company’s CEO Toby Mitchell. So, when Bonipak brought the company a plan drawing without a specific electrical schematic, several pieces of conveyor belt and a programmable logic controller (PLC) —an industrial digital computer adapted to control the manufacturing process—from the previous packing line, the contractor got to work.
Bonipak grows, harvests, cools and processes fresh vegetables destined for retailers, wholesalers and restaurants. It is a partner to Betteravia Farms, located in the Santa Maria Valley, north of Los Angeles.
One of the markets that has been growing recently is Brussels sprouts, said Matt Hart, lead engineer at Betteravia Farms. The original packline had the capacity to clean, sort and pack 800 cartons of sprouts a day, with 26 people on the job, but volume has increased. When the company merged with another farming operation that grew sprouts, they realized they might need to process 2,000 or more cartons a day depending on sales demand. They couldn’t simply put more people on the job; the company required more automation, so they opted to build a conveyor system. They needed it fast though—growing sprouts don’t wait, and the little vegetables were arriving in a matter of months. The project was planned for about eight weeks, Hart said, while installation was about four weeks.
“We knew our existing system wouldn’t meet our demands,” Hart said. The conveyor system they had was outdated, so Hart led an effort to get a new, state-of-the-art system in place. “We had an existing panel that Classic had to rewire and reprogram, and a PLC,” he said, and that was the starting point.
Classic undertook the design, and then installed all wiring, plumbing and controls within a predefined footprint at the cooling and packaging facility, Mitchell said.
The resulting conveyor system consists of a series of motorized conveyors and sorters, set up in an L-shape, about 60 feet by 150 feet. It cleans, sorts and packages the sprouts for delivery to customers. Space is limited, so about 600 feet worth of conveyors operate in the space altogether, each measuring between 5–15 feet. All of the roughly 40 conveyors have their own motors, but about 65 motors altogether move the system’s many parts.
Classic ran rigid aluminum cable to the panels, motors and conveyors built by Packline Technologies, a company in Reedley, Calif. In addition to that, the system has a Giro mesh bagging system manufactured in Spain that has its own seven motors that Classic also powered. A touchscreen allows users to start and stop the system, and the PLC that follows instructions and controls sortation and packing for each order.
The installation started at the end of April 2016 and finished in May.
“When the project was built, there was no blueprint, [and] it was a rough sketch,” said Classic’s project manager Joe Gotchal, and the crew had to work forward from there. Over the course of the four weeks, the project changed about six times.
The PLC was one of the greatest challenges. It needed to be rebuilt to operate with the touchscreen and to accommodate a much larger system than the one it was replacing. Gotchal didn’t have a programming background and there were no engineers on the team, but he taught himself fast, poring over the details at night on his own computer.
“I had a little bit of PLC training, but nothing that extensive,” Gotchal said. That meant learning the process of making load calculations, motor calculations and managing related circuitry.
“Joe was a master with it,” Hart said.
Classic programmed the PLC to start and stop the belts in sequence—the last belt starts first, and the initial belt starts last and the shutdown process happens in reverse. Workers shut the system on and off during breaks throughout the day.
Changes took place over the course of the project, as multiple parties weighed in on how it would be used. Hart recalled that the system was designed to send 70% of the product to the Giro bagging system. “The day we turned on the machine, the sales guy said, ‘This is going to be great for the 20% going to the bag.’”
That meant reconfiguring the line to reroute more sprouts to the carton-filling—rather than bagging—area.
Other changes took place when the electric crew was not on-site, as well. Bonipak had to process existing sprouts even while the system was being built.
“We had to schedule the work around production,” Hart said. Sometimes Bonipak moved conveyors and motors to accommodate the arrival of new equipment, making it necessary for Classic to re-engineer them when they returned to the site.
The system’s safety technology ensures the conveyor stops automatically in the case of a problem. The group had to design safety stops which hadn’t existed on the previous system. In fact, Gotchal recalled, those safety stops were still being installed even after the system went live.
Classic also built the connection to the automated bagging system that encloses the sprouts in mesh netting. The European-built equipment runs on 230V power, while the rest of the line uses 208V. Classic installed the 208V transformer on the shortest winding possible to bring voltage closer to 217, enabling the system to run the bagging equipment along with the rest of the American-made conveyors.
Today, Brussels sprouts fresh from harvest go into a bin that is brought on-site and cooled, then deposited into the dumper—the holding container at the new conveyor system. The dumper drops the sprouts onto a metering belt that spreads the vegetables out. They then fall onto a roller that deleafs them. The sprouts take a ride on a primary sorting belt where they are inspected by workers, and any damaged or spoiled vegetables are removed. They travel to the elevator belt, and on to a sizer, which drops the sprouts onto one of three belts according to size. Those belts each pass through another inspection area where staff look for anything the wrong size or with quality issues. The rejected sprouts travel to a trash conveyor.
They next pass through a series of gates and chutes that redirects the sprouts to one of four transfer belts to go to either carton filling or onto a second elevator belt for mesh bagging.
The system easily accommodates the larger volume of sprouts and requires only 19 workers. The machine has been working two shifts every day, meaning 16-hour days, without electrical issues, Hart said.
He said he can recommend ways to construct the system that would be easier, if a company had the time and resources, such as building a system from scratch.
“We had a tight budget,” Hart said, which is why they recycled some older equipment. “It would have been easier if we could have started from scratch,” he said. For instance, “We were detuning motor starters to fit smaller horsepower motors than they were originally designed for.” Some of those starters are now being replaced.
The project is the kind of thing Classic takes pride in, Mitchell said.
“We don’t typically follow the bidding model. Most of what we do is design-build.”
And although they do all kinds of electrical construction, agriculture work is at the center of their business.
“None of us has an engineering degree, it was just us,” Mitchell added. “We design stuff. Bonipak knew an electrical engineer wouldn’t be able to work with that tight of a deadline.”
Classic was able to do it, in part, because of the company’s size as well as its service-based philosophy, Gotchal said.
“Toby started the company wanting to be different. He’s of a completely different mindset than your typical contractor. He wanted to make sure the basis of what we did was different than anyone else.”
That means they aren’t just another crew on a construction site, he said, “we are a company with a culture of serving the customer. Our product is not what we install; it’s the value of the service that we provide.”
And as technology evolves, Classic intends to be at the front of the curve.
“People who can adapt to the technology will have a future in the industry,” Gotchal said. “A lot of times I get asked ‘Can you do it?,’ and my answer is always yes. Whatever they want, that’s what I can provide.”
Throughout the Bonipak project, Gotchal said, “You couldn’t plan ahead, you just had to walk in and adapt.”
Installation happened on schedule.
“Classic worked perfectly within the initial install schedule,” Hart said. “Where they really shined was when the changes started coming in. They were able to adapt and work within the production schedule.”