Harvest assist platforms: What’s out there?Technology & Data
With a reduced pool of labour across the country now looking inevitable, growers are beginning to look at ways they can be more efficient with the labour they do have.
Picking platforms are one example of doing this. Mobile platforms have been in use since the 1960s, but only in recent years have they become a common sight in orchards.
That trend will continue in 2021, but there is lots to consider before purchasing a platform, according to AgFirst’s Craig Hornblow, not least the substantial capital required.
“Platforms are a major capital investment,” Craig said during APAL’s spring orchard walks last month.
“Because of that you’ve got to get into this early, you just can’t head down to the local dealership and pick up a platform. You’ve got to make that decision quite early.”
Benefits from a well-considered purchase range from efficiency and productivity, to safety.
“Having someone on the machine that has the responsibility to drive productivity is important,” Craig said. “Someone who can pilot and have an overview, checking speeds and position.
“The demographic that it opens up…there’s a range of staff that can’t manage the physical nature of going up and down the ladder day after day, week after week.
“One of the things we do know is that it is physically reducing the workload.
“It reduces how much they carry around, the workload is easier which gives the chance to extend hours, some people might go from 7–8 to 9–10 hours each day.”
What’s out there?
APAL decided to take a look at some of the platforms that are currently in the market.
APAL has no affiliations with any of the companies listed below, rather, we wanted to give an outline of the typical types of harvest assist platforms that growers may come across and a grower perspective from those who have used them.
We advise anyone looking at purchasing a platform to research what is out there and choose dependent on their needs.
Large and technical
Meccanica Zucal are an Italian owned company that have been around for over 40 years.
The Z11 platform features room for 6 growers to be working together at once, with conveyor belts and LED lighting.
The Zucal models tend to be larger, heavier and more technical products. The Z11 is around half a tonne heavier than the next heaviest on the market.
It is also one of the more expensive models on the market, but Brad Fankhauser in Gippsland has found the investment to be well and truly worth it.
“One of the main differences, conveyors wrap around the picker’s body and there’s a bag right there,” Brad said.
“With ours, you’re not even twisting your body, which makes it much more efficient.
“Pruning for thinning, everything, probably 20 per cent more efficient than bags and ladders on an average day, and on a good day, it’s probably about 100 per cent more efficient.”
Brad also had one key bit of advice for anyone looking to purchase a picking platform.
“Get LED lights. It’s a no brainer.
“When those heatwaves come along, we can get our crews out at night and do the work then.
“Everyone’s happy, and the fruit is better.
“If you’re going to spend $200,000 on a platform, you may as well spend an extra $10,000 on the lights. I’d really encourage people to think about that.”
Check out the 2019 version of the Z11 model in action below:
Whereas the Zucal branded platforms are big, heavy and technical, fellow Italian producers Billo produce a smaller, lighter platform that favours simplicity over technical capability.
Somewhat ironically named the Big 2000, the Billo fits only one person either side and requires the picker to swivel to deposit fruit, although belts are available as an option on the newer versions.
Individuals can choose three or four metre platforms, with four-cylinder diesel engines, negative and hydraulic brakes, and a top speed of 10kph.
Alex Turnbull of Turnbull Brothers Orchards in the Goulburn Valley went with Billo due to its versatility.
“It’s been really good, nice and simple and practical.” Alex said
“Some of the other ones are quite technical, they’ve got a lot of different options.
“For us, given we grow other fruit like cherries as well, we needed something more versatile.”
Alex met with the manufacturers prior to purchasing and acknowledges that although fixing and servicing can be an issue, the machines themselves have been a great success.
“We went over to see them in Italy. We felt they were really professional,” he said
“My advice to people looking at platforms: I don’t think that cost necessarily translates into quality. A lot are made overseas. One that’s made in Germany will end up being more expensive than in Italy.
“We’re really, really happy with ours and we’re looking at hopefully getting in another two or possibly even three.”
Conveyor belt vs bin system
Bin Bandit Cub
Based in Washington State, U.S, the Bin Bandit range have been around for some time, producing a range of products that are each specific to harvesting, pruning, thinning and more.
The Bin Bandit Cub, a harvest assist platform, is particularly adept for those with narrower plantings, with the ability to go as high as 2.4m vertical to 3m V-trellis systems.
It comes with LED lights, making night picking an option. There is no conveyer belt, with Bin Bandit products generally all relying on bringing the bin closer to the pickers. The advantage of this is the flexibility it gives pickers in terms of moving around the platform to where the high volumes of fruit are.
With a conveyor belt system, an excellent distribution of fruit becomes more critical to efficiency gains, given the picker’s limited ability to move around the platform.
REVO are another Italian brand.
The REVO Piumi 4WD is a 2.5 tonne, diesel engine, with negative braking system and the ability to raise three metres off the ground.
Whereas most platforms can be raised to a certain height vertically, the Pimui 4WD also features an extendable platform horizontally, giving it its main point of difference. The 3.8m long platform? can be extended to 5.4m long if necessary.
Plunkett Orchards used only picking platforms in 2019 for the first time. With seven platforms, including three REVO and several from yet another Italian brand in Frumcao, Orchard Manager Jason Shields is clearly an advocate for the technology.
“Our staff need less training — we can put a person on the platform and once they’re used to the movement, they pick the same amount of fruit at the start of the season as they do at the end,” Jason told APAL last year.
“Our first two platforms were ordered ‘as is’, but we needed to make some modifications once they arrived to accommodate our row spaces.
“We need seven per cent efficiency to make it work and the machines have done that – this technology has turned a person that would usually pick two bins into one that picks four,” he said.
Alternative option: partial self-build
South Australia’s Rob Green took a different route altogether.
Given the undulations that exist in the Adelaide Hills, Rob didn’t feel that there were local platforms on the market that met his needs. Nor did he want to risk a breakdown, and subsequent time delay in acquiring a part or service from overseas??, to slow production.
He therefore took matters into his own hands, contacting an engineer and getting to work on constructing his own platform.
“I commissioned the building of my own, and I did take part in the construction of it. We’re really happy with it.
“I got in touch with Ben Wye Engineering, and he basically constructed the chassis. Then we got it back here, I imported some track gear because it is track mounted, sourced some hydraulics and power plugs, and did the electrical work here.
“It does more hours than our main tractors, and in fact it’d do more hours than anything else we’ve got.”
Rob’s platform doesn’t have a fruit handling system on it, so it isn’t used for picking.
But pruning, thinning, net repair, opening and closing nets, trellis servicing and much more are within its capabilities.
So, would he recommend others to go down this path?
“I mean, a one-off custom-made machine is always going to be more expensive than off the shelf,” Rob said
“But for me, I mean, there’s not a lot of locally-made platforms. The majority come from overseas.
“Safety was a paramount concern, and a lot aren’t really built for hills.
“With freight moving slowly, especially now, if there is a breakdown, there’s no parts support or local servicers.
“I’ve got pretty in-depth knowledge of my machine. I can often diagnose the problem. I know where to get the parts because I got them there before.
“My advice to anyone would be to buy something off the shelf if you can, but know that there isn’t locally the knowledge, and it might be frustrating to try to service and get parts when they break down. Whichever one you’ve got, they will break down when you are using them – not when you aren’t.”