On to grader things

Images: supplied

Images: supplied

Mount Waverley’s GP Graders has helped reshape the way stone fruit and other produce is sorted around the world, introducing automation to an area that’s sometimes been reluctant to embrace it. Brent Balinski spoke to the company’s Director, Stuart Payne.

Some manufacturing and agricultural businesses have strong opinions about the big supermarket chains’ purchasing power.

For GP Graders, the shrinking number of packing houses serving the big two prompted them to start exporting in 2000. The 2007 acquisition of Coles by Wesfarmers was “a real turning point”, and since then there’s been a greater adoption of tough supplier relation techniques and “a huge consolidation process of the supplier base” for fresh produce in Australia, said Stuart Payne, Director of GP Graders.

“Coles had, I think, in 2005 or 2006, 1,200 suppliers of fresh produce,” Payne told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“They very quickly whittled that down to 600, and now they’ve whittled it down to the point where there’s one apple supplier, there’s one apple packing house in South Australia now for all of Woolworths’ apples.”

The late-1990s local demand for one of their packing lines a week simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Fortunately, GP has worked hard and successfully at building export markets as the local market for their machinery shrunk. They currently export to over 20 countries, bringing sophisticated electronic techniques to fruit sorting, an area that has been slower than others to automate. Exports represent about 80 per cent of sales.

Going digital

The company saw early export interest in mechanical cherry sorters from Italy. However, things really picked up in late-2011 and 2012, when cherry-specific, electronic AirJet machines started being installed.

“It will look at each piece of fruit and grade according to size, colour, separations, shape and also according to the quality of the product, which is to segregate the product on the basis of quality required by different markets,” explained Payne.

“A premium-grade, export market is going to want nice, firm, unblemished fruit to be delivered into their markets, and they’ll pay top money for them. A local market may be a little looser on their specification, it may allow some slightly softer fruit to be accessed and you’ll have your second grade, your third grade and even your fourth grade market.”

The system creates value for a customer by both improving the prices a packing house can demand for its fruit, and by cutting out labour requirements.

GP’s first machine, made by Payne’s father (a self-taught engineer) in 1963, was a contraption for sorting apples.

It would be unrecognisable next to one of the current graders, which are the subject of millions of dollars’ worth of R&D annually. (Developments range from finessing presentation to standardisation of parts, as well as the company’s service offerings.)

“It’s moving from a very labour-intensive, mechanical device-based industry to a fully electronic, fully-automated scenario,” explained Payne of his company’s influence on fruit sorting.

The AirJet machines use super HD camera vision and software, and are able to process as many as 30 pieces a second (on a larger roller) or 45 pieces per second (on the micro-roller option, used for smaller produce such as blueberries).

In 2013/14 the company installed what’s reportedly the world’s biggest cherry grader, in California, capable of sorting 24 tonnes of cherries per hour.

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The company has received many awards recognising its achievements in export and innovation, including multiple Governor of Victoria Export Awards, the Manufacturing Award and Australian Exporter of the Year Award at the 2014 Australian Export Awards, and Exporter of the Year at this year’s Manufacturers’ Monthly Endeavour Awards.

On any advice he might have to share for other machinery specialists looking to expand through exports, Payne said that traction can be found in many of the less-hyped markets.

Competing to win

Though Asia has provided opportunities for many manufacturers, it is “not the be all and end all” and businesses “shouldn’t be obsessed” with it.

“We’ve found a huge amount of life in Chile; it’s not the most obvious go-to destination for an Australian exporter, but that’s where we found a lot of success, likewise Canada and the US,” he said.

“These are all good first-world countries that are easy to deal with, we have a very similar philosophy in doing business with each other, and these are easier relationships and easier ways to develop.”

As for awards’ programs, Payne said they were reluctant to put themselves forward at first, and only did so at the urging of government representatives, who helped the company overcome its shyness.

Nowadays, the firm participates and wins in many awards, and believes that these are important in helping tell the story of many Australians who innovate, export and enjoy world-class success.

“We pursued that recognition for ourselves, but also we want to tell our story, that this isn’t such a lonely path, that we can do great things, and to a point there’s a degree of unselfishness in it, in trying to tell the story that Australia can do great things,” offered Payne.

“We’ve got great minds and can succeed, and [should] not resign ourselves to this pathetic idea that we’re not good enough to compete in the world in manufacturing. We bloody well are!”

GP Graders was the champion in the Exporter of the Year category at the 2015 Manufacturers’ Monthly Endeavour Awards. For more information on the awards, or to submit a nomination for 2017’s awards, click here.