Apples are well known and popular in many parts of the world. But from the time one is harvested to the day it lands in your shopping basket, many months can pass. In the Vinschgau region of South Tyrol, in northern Italy, harvest time starts at the end of August and runs until late October. A peaceful local village called Schlanders is home to the local fruit-growers’ cooperative, GEOS, which was founded in 1946. Together, GEOS’s 310 members cultivate roughly 960 hectares of land and produce up to 70,000 metric tons of apples per annum. The fruits of their labors are stored in the cooperative’s huge logistics center, ready to be sold throughout the year. While in storage, super-efficient, high-tech systems and significant logistical effort keep them tasting just as they should. They also keep our supermarkets well stocked all year round, even with produce from local growers.
To deliver a first-rate service with top-quality products, the complex logistics of harvesting, storing and selling fruits requires precise planning at every stage. That’s why, when GEOS decided to build a new high-bay warehouse two years ago, they chose the intralogistics specialist LTW as their partner. LTW won the contract not only for their ability to meet the service and quality standards but also for their concept, which incorporated the latest lift drive technology for rack feeders: Synchrodrive, the synchronous drive belt by ContiTech. The belt had to fulfill a number of extremely tough requirements, including a long service life, short positioning times and superlative performance. The new logistics system in the GEOS warehouse has now been in operation for six months and is performing well in every respect.
On arriving at the cooperative, the freshly harvested fruits are first given a visual quality check. They are then sorted by color and ripeness, and put into cold storage. The duration and conditions in which they are stored depend on the fruits themselves. To keep them fresh and crisp right until they are sold, they are warehoused in a controlled atmosphere (CA). Temperatures of +1 degree Celsius and oxygen content of 1 percent slow down the speed at which they ripen by blocking their metabolic processes and so preserve their inner quality. The apples are put into hibernation, as it were. When the first ones are due for sale, a complex processing operation is set into motion. The cold-storage units open, and the fruits pass along water channels that take them to the sorter. “This is an especially gentle way of transporting them and prevents them from being damaged. The system carries out a precise examination of every single one,” explains GEOS’s Managing Director, Hannes Spögler. They are then sorted into 55 different groups, depending on a range of characteristics, such as color, shape, size and weight. Packed into crates of 300 kilograms each, they are sent to the new high-bay warehouse, which acts as an interface between the CA units and the sorting and packaging stations. The whole operation is controlled by intelligent software programs that ensure complete traceability right up to the point where the apple is sold.
First in - first out
“Our previous warehouse made it difficult to follow a ‘first in, first out’ system, which is what you need if you want to make sure customers always have the freshest possible fruits. That was a point where we clearly needed to do some catching up. After all, superior stock control is absolutely vital to our processes,” says Spögler. Faced with ever-increasing numbers of subspecies require more and more sorting, GEOS was also running out of cooling units. “For us as a food processing business, improving standards is vitally important. Our storage system was simply out of date, and material flows were very difficult to control. That’s why we decided to build a fully-automated high-bay warehouse,” Spögler explains.
Mammoth mission accomplished
Storage in the new warehouse is considerably more efficient and makes the best possible use of all the space available. With a capacity of about 17,000 crates and measuring 28 meters in height, the new structure was a mammoth undertaking. Before the first sod was turned in December 2014, the logistics specialists from LTW had developed a customized solution for in-house material flows. When the huge storage halls finally reached completion in March 2015, their centerpiece was installed: the fully automated system. “One of the key factors in our decision to choose LTW was the innovativeness of their concept,” Spögler recalls. ContiTech’s Synchrodrive had been a part of the LTW plan right from the outset.