By Rachael Porter
Many producers and processors have been investing heavily in egg packing equipment, particularly with a view to becoming less reliable on labour. So says Prinzen UK’s operations manager Ben McGill.
“Without a doubt, the past few years have been all about automation and efficiency. And the uncertainty concerning Brexit is definitely playing a role here,” he says. “Packers and processors are concerned that European labour may be in short supply and the larger companies, in particular, could be hardest hit. They’re the ones looking to automate some, if not all, of the packing process, in a bid to mitigate this threat.”
He says that even the smaller producers and packers are struggling to source staff. “Egg packing and processing jobs are not particularly attractive. But the good news is that these are tasks that are relatively simple to automate. And installing equipment can also remove some of the repetition and monotony from working in an egg processing and packing plant, which could actually make such jobs more attractive to potential employees. Machinery can also take on some of the heavy lifting tasks too and make the job safer.”
So there’s no doubt that, for some companies, investing in robotics and automated systems has removed some of the pressure associated with sourcing staff and it’s also streamlined the process – increasing capacity and efficiency and, therefore, reducing costs.
“The level of investment in 2017/2018 was unprecedented. We installed almost 70 systems – of varying size and set up – during that 12-month period. That’s an increase of almost 50% compared to the previous year.”
He says that the biggest growth has been in the hatchery market, as opposed to the commercial egg market. “Breeders are particularly interested in Prinzen automation because the equipment’s 99.7% point-down set rate can help to improve hatchability.”
McGill says there’s more uncertainty in the egg market – not just the labour market – at the moment. And that’s cooled things down a little, in terms of investment. “Not only is there currently an oversupply of eggs, but there are concerns that, come March 29, the UK could be flooded with cheaper lower-welfare eggs.”
RM Group has also been buy during the past 12 months, according to a spokesperson. “We installed lots of systems across the UK. And our customers are always impressed with how quickly we can automate their existing packing line. Typically it takes just one day for installation, followed by three or four days for training and commissioning.”
They added that the Powys-based company’s egg palletising robots are particularly popular: “The robot palletising system provides the perfect end of line solution for any egg processing plant, capable of effortlessly palletising four pallets per hour – more than 570 eggs per minute.
“The system allows egg producers to process and palletise their eggs with ease and at a speed that dramatically influence their daily productions, accuracy and grading efficiency. We aim to ensure that the system offers low maintenance, reliability, easy cleaning and gentle egg handling.
“The robot is extremely user friendly and full training is given at installation. Aftercare service packages are available to ensure no downtime in production.”
The system consists of an ABB palletising robot with a bespoke gripper head, manufactured to pick and place the egg trays and the dividing sheets. The egg trays are picked up using the existing contours in the plastic egg trays while strategically placed sensors ensure the trays are clear of the forks before the robot fully retracts, eliminating the possibility of any breakages.
Data collection and hygiene are the two areas where leading automatic egg packing equipment manufacturer Sanovo Technology is focussing, in what it says is in response to customers feedback and needs.
“Big data and the ability to capture it and add full traceability, even down to an individual egg, is something that many egg packers are now looking for,” says the company’s product and business manager Wijnand van den Berg.
“And some of the pressure is coming direct from their customers – particularly the large supermarkets – who want to know exactly where the eggs that they’re selling are produced.”
He says that the Sanovo Grader Pro range of packing and palletising equipment now comes with data capture. “And this is particularly useful for packers who have large orders to fulfil.
“They have data at their fingertips about how many eggs have been packed and where they’re from and this means that they can quickly calculate if they can meet the orders that they have and move eggs around the plant quickly and efficiently – be that from the delivery to the packing areas or from there to pallets. They know where everything is. All the information is there, on a computer screen.”
van den Berg adds that some supermarkets also want to sell locally or regionally produced eggs in some of their stores. “So, for example, our equipment can ensure that if Sainsburys wants Yorkshire-produced eggs on its shelves that a packer can offer full traceability and a guarantee that eggs are, indeed, produced in that region.”
Egg producers and packing businesses are getting larger, reflecting the size of the orders and contracts from supermarkets and other retailers that need to be met. “But our equipment also allows these larger business to operate on a smaller scale, as and when required, with niche or regionally produced eggs. Traceability is key and that’s only possible with good data – both collection and interrogation have to be accurate. And we can offer that with our range of equipment.”
Automation is also about saving time and Sanovo’s focus has most recently been on hygiene – or rather packing and palletising equipment that’s quick and easy to clean.
“Making our range more ‘cleanable’ is also something we’ve been working on and, again, our Grader Pro range now comes with ‘cleaning in place’ or CIP,” explains van den Berg.
In-shell egg hygiene standards are different to, say, the standards expected when it comes to meat packing or cutting equipment. But it’s expected that they will soon fall in line with other food processing equipment standards. So Sanovo and other egg packing equipment manufacturers have now closed that gap and machinery now meets similar when it comes to hygiene and ‘cleanability’.
“We felt that it was important to stay one step ahead of any possible regulation and, again, we also listened to our customers. The industry asked for easy-to-clean equipment, so that’s what we’ve developed.
van den Berg says that it’s about saving time – and reducing down time. “Cleaning across our range can now be automated – a cleaning cycle is started by simply removing a couple of parts and pressing a button. It’s quick and easy. And it’s all data logged – there’s a record that the cleaning has been carried out, which again helps with compliance and assurance schemes.”
Packer launched for table-based operations
An egg packer designed for 30-cell trays, with a six-row roller/cup configuration, has been launched by Danish company Prinzen. It says that the Prinzen 70 was introduced to extend and ‘fill a gap’ in its range of farm packers for table egg packing.
The company adds that the packer offers gentle egg transfer, is a compact and flexible design, is easy to operate and that maintenance costs are low.
The equipment also has an operating capacity of 25,200 eggs per hour. Eggs are packed ‘points down corrected’ and with the highest care. The clear overview ensures full egg control and an ergonomic workplace for the operator. The optimised tray handling with the latest denester increases performance and user friendliness.
The machine is constructed from robust and durable materials and the company says that it has been designed to ensure that vital parts are easily accessible for cleaning and maintenance.
Mark Leenders, who runs a layer farm in the Netherlands, recently installed the packer on his unit and he says he’s happy with it. “It’s a reliable packer and, with six rows, the capacity and speed are a lot higher what I was used to with my previous machine.
“The denester and the stacker are also greatly improved. This gives me more time to spend on checking eggs for quality and it is easy for one person to do. The packer is made of stainless steel and this makes it simple to clean and maintain. And it’s also easy to access everywhere that I need to, to lubricate and control the machine.”