New Zealand’s W A Coppins Ltd. designs a fruit picking bag that beats the raining technique.
By Lynn Keillor
Three kiwifruit growers in New Zealand approached fruit-basket designer Bill Coppins with a problem.
Workers who hand-pick kiwifruit were inadvertently damaging the fruit as they dropped it from the vines into their picking bags. The worst part: the bruising wouldn’t show up until three months later, when the fruit was on grocery shelves in destinations around the world. Growers’ pocketbooks were getting a bruising, as well. The damaged fruit was costing them about $30 to $35 million annually.
They asked Coppins, the director at Motueka, New Zealand-based W A Coppins Ltd., to use the company’s 40-plus years experience in the fruit-picking basket industry to develop a new picking bag expressly for them. W A Coppins Ltd. is a family-owned company primarily known for its maritime products, particularly for the para sea anchor. Approximately 20 percent of its business is in fruit-picking baskets, which have changed over the years from simple bags on a hoop to more complex designs. The demand for export-quality kiwifruit (roughly 90 percent of New Zealand’s kiwi is shipped overseas) meant that a new basket had to solve very specific problems.
The solution needed to be twofold: a successful design would need to prevent fruit damage, and would have to be accepted by the end-user, the pickers. Kiwifruit pickers are typically paid by volume, so Coppins knew they wouldn’t accept something that hampered their performance and productivity.
As the primary designer, Coppins went to his drawing board to create a bag that would address both issues. About two and a half years and three tested concepts later, he had the Kiwifruit Bruise Control bag. Not only does the bag minimize damage to the fruit—studies on the new bag show only .8 percent of the fruit suffered damage, compared to 8 percent from previous picking bags—it allows the fruit pickers to work faster. It’s a win for the growers, for the pickers, and the kiwi consumer around the world.
Research and reality
To create the bag, Coppins needed to identify the exact nature of the problem. He spent time in the field, studying the fruit and the way that pickers worked.
First, there’s the proper way to pick the fruit: picking them one by one, and ensuring that they drop no more than 12 inches into the bag. Observations of 146 pickers in 12 orchards showed that only 8.9 percent of them followed proper procedure.
Then there’s the way most pickers work: the raining technique. “They let the fruit drop, or rain, down into the bucket,” Coppins says. “A lot of the fruit are dropping on top of other fruit, and they’re dropping from about three feet.”
Most kiwi pickers know the proper technique, but a short, six-week kiwi season and payment-per-pound means expediency is their preferred choice of operation. “That was the biggest problem, to work around a way to ensure that they were happy and that we wouldn’t make it awkward for them,” Coppins says. “We thought, ‘If we can’t beat the pickers, we’ll join them and let them rain the fruit.’”
Coppins then considered the dynamics of the bag. It needed to maintain its shape, but still flex in some areas. It needed to manage the fruit’s speed, bounce and fall. The system couldn’t bottleneck and stop the flow of fruit.
The final result was a bag that looks like a cross between a piece of camping equipment and something from a science lab. A fabric funnel, at about chest height, attaches to a padded bag, which sits about stomach-height on the picker. The magic happens in the bag’s interior, after the kiwifruit drops into the funnel. Each fruit is slowed by a foam tongue, and then enters a zig-zagging tunnel. A four-tier drop system, with each drop no more than 8 inches, guides individual fruits into the main compartment. The fruit then enters the main part of the bag at low velocity and from an acceptable drop height. The baskets are made of 600-denier polyester with a polyurethane coating for waterproofing purposes.
Fast and fruitful
The baskets passed the first test of saving the fruit, but the real test was with the pickers.
Coppins identified the five fastest pickers using conventional methods and the five fastest with the new bag. The results were astounding: those using the new bag were picking 40.8 percent more than their counterparts. Applying the math across the board, it means that the industry average of 1.1 bins per hour increases to 1.44 bins per hour when using the new apparatus.
“Before, if they’re picking the fruit correctly, they’d pick it from the vine, bring it down and place it into the bucket, which is about thigh high. It’s time consuming,” Coppins says. “Now, they can pick it and drop in into the funnel, and while that fruit is trickling down, they’re picking more fruit.”
Coppins is making a slow push into the marketplace with the Kiwifruit Bruise Control bag. The company produced approximately 500 of them in 2010, and estimates that there are roughly 800 in the marketplace. The three original growers who requested the bag have made the bag compulsory for their pickers. W A Coppins is making another marketing push prior to the 2011 season in March and April.
At that time, he says, he’ll look at international markets, particularly those who export their kiwifruit. “I’m guessing once they realize there’s a speed factor, they’ll take it on,” Coppins says.