07/05/2024 | Belgium

How cutting-edge technology transforms cherry packing operations

Prima Frutta Packing is a family-owned business based in Linden, California. It packs high-quality cherries using the latest packaging technologies to ship across the USA and internationally to markets in Asia and other regions. It was founded in 1991 by Tim Sambado to pack the produce from orchards on and around the family’s ranch, which is marketed by Primavera Marketing, also run by the family. 

The business has grown steadily and ten years ago it introduced TOMRA Food sorters into its processing line to achieve the quality demanded by its customers. Tim Sambado, President of Prima Frutta, explains: “We pride ourselves on our consistent quality, day in day out, season to season. Our customers look for us to deliver a high-end quality product as well as excellent service. We can’t do our business without technology and information. We are obsessed with data, and we are obsessed with getting the best technology in the world.”

In 2023, TOMRA Food was in the final stages of development of its AI-powered LUCAi™ platform, ready to trial its innovation with customers in different conditions and regions – from California to New Zealand. When Prima Frutta was offered the opportunity, Tim Sambado, a keen believer in technology, was eager to see how it could help him achieve the improvements he wanted for Prima Frutta: “We wanted to become more accurate, to simplify the system for our operators, and to be able to detect some defects that in our traditional mapping system was more difficult.”  

After the 2023 cherry season, Prima Frutta decided to install LUCAi on all of their machines, for a total of 132 lanes for their upcoming 2024 cherry season. 

Two long-standing customers who have been running TOMRA equipment for almost 10 years, both based in Central Otago, New Zealand, were also keen to implement the TOMRA LUCAi™ technology on their InVision2 grading platform: Dunstan Hills, which grows cherries primarily for export around the world and Panmure Orchards, a family business founded in 1952 and now in its sixth generation, which serves the domestic market. 

The three cherry growers share the challenge of meeting the growing demand, with consistent high-quality produce, in the short cherry season, which typically begins in mid-May and finishes at the end of June in California, while in New Zealand it runs from early to mid-December to late January. After one full season with TOMRA LUCAi™, they found that they benefited from higher productivity, enhanced quality selection with consequent higher margins for their customers, and reduced food waste. “With LUCAi™ we achieved better grading and increased throughput of around 10 percent – and it is easy to use,” says Ian Nicholls, Operations Manager at Dunstan Hills. 

User-friendly operation, high quality, increased productivity

LUCAi™’s user-friendly interface software makes it very easy for the customer’s operators to get the best sorting and grading performance from their processing line. “It allows us to make changes and gives us accurate data on how it is going to impact our grading before we apply the change. This means that the operators can do things with much more confidence and quickly. They don’t have to do a lot of sampling and testing before they can apply a change because they get the data immediately,” explains Tim Sambado. This immediate feedback is a game changer, because “in the cherry world, when you’re running 40,000 cherries a minute, you just don’t have a lot of time to sample.” Ian Nicholls agrees: “It is easier for the operator to refine decision-making and improve grading. LUCAi™ is better at making difficult decisions on small blemishes as to whether it is for export or the local market.”

This not only helps cherry packers deliver consistent quality and meet the specific requirements of their customers, but it also enables them to increase their productivity and address the short cherry season. Ian Nicholls says: “With LUCAi™ making more accurate decisions, we are able to put more fruit in front of the sorters.” 

Tim Sambado agrees: “We are running more tons per hour with the same labor force, allowing us to keep up with the cherry harvest, which is quite compact in California. We also continue with the quality that we expect in our brands. One of the advantages of LUCAi™ is that when we depend on electronic sorting to do all the heavy lifting, the number of good-in-bad errors has been dramatically reduced.”

Unparalleled accuracy, future-proof technology

LUCAi™ for the InVision2 cherry grading platform is unique in that it comes with vast amounts of data collected by TOMRA in different regions across the world, building pre-trained models using real images of cherries. This means that it is ready to deliver its superior sorting and grading performance as soon as it is installed. It uses TOMRA’s Deep Learning technology to identify with unparalleled accuracy an extensive range of defects – from edge cracks, Pacman cherries, open sutures, cosmetic blemishes and stem pulls, to spurs, cracks and all defects around the stem; from dehydration to apical splits; and it will recognize colors in the ripe phase with precision. Jeremy Hiscock, Managing Director at Panmure Orchards is impressed with the accuracy: “We have seen a significant increase in the quality of machine graded fruit with LUCAi™. We would be devastated to not have access to this technology.”

The platform also continues to evolve as it keeps learning from the data it collects while running in the customer’s operation, future-proofing their business. TOMRA’s Service team remains at their side after installation, ready to proactively help them optimize their sorting and grading performance. For example, they can access the platform and use its data and the customer’s feedback to build defect models to perform for their specific needs and quality requirements.

 “It’s an evolving process,” says Tim Sambado. “Teaching it the powdery mildew defects, insect bites, freshwater cracks that we’ve had after a rain: things that were very difficult on our traditional mapping systems. The LUCAi™, through training, has seemed able to get these types of specialized defects more effectively.” 

“It’s really exciting to see how the system is going to evolve. I think we’ve just scratched the surface and there’s a lot more ahead of us. TOMRA Food is our partner, we continuously try to get better together. As we move into the future, we clearly realize as a company that we all have to keep getting better. Expectations keep going up, everybody expects a better product, delivered on time, without any excuses. TOMRA Food technology will help us meet those demands,” concludes Tim Sambado.

“Thanks to LUCAi™, the era of compromise is a thing of the past for our customers,” summarizes Benedetta Ricci Iamino, Global Category Director – Cherries at TOMRA Food. “It guarantees the packaging of top-notch fruit, meticulously sorted and placed in optimal boxes, prepared for the most favorable market prices. LUCAi™ excels at handling various cherry qualities with precision, consistently segregating fruit classes for different markets, even in challenging batches, thus preventing fruit waste and potential market claims. The commitment is crystal clear – our customers can now confidently expect their best fruit, in prime condition, reaching optimal markets, all at highly competitive prices. LUCAi™ caters to a diverse range of preferences and customizations, providing a comprehensive solution poised to revolutionize the industry landscape and enable our customers to achieve unprecedented success in the cherry industry.”

In this video, Tim Sambado of Prima Frutta Packing talks about his experience with TOMRA Food. 





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