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Packing nature's candy

Preserving produce quality is key for Harry and David, one of America's premier gourmet food-gift companies. For more than 70 years the Medford, OR-based company has offered luscious fruit, decadent desserts, floral gifts, home decor, elegant confections and savory treats expertly prepared using the finest of ingredients. A self-described “stickler for perfection, every step of the way,” the company hand-picks each and every piece of fruit it sells.

Dominating its business, Harry and David is no ordinary mail-order house: It grows its own fruit, bakes its cakes—even makes its own chocolates in its confectionery, with the help of a fervent staff of employees, some of whom have been hand-packing its gourmet gift baskets and hand-tying satin bows for the company every Christmas for more than 45 years (the company also operates its popular Harry and David retail shops scattered across the country).

In 1934, brothers Harry and David first began selling their delicious and rare pears—the gourmet Royal Riviera variety, specifically—to corporations. The gourmet pears are so temperamental; they're only at home in the South of France or in Oregon. When business started to sour during the Great Depression, the brothers went directly to consumers and offered samples of the juicy pears to taste. Harry and David never looked back. Today, Harry and David sells dozens of fruit varieties, including seasonal and regional favorites such as apples, oranges, peaches, nectarines, plums, strawberries, apricots, blueberries, plumcots (a cross between a plum and apricot), figs, tropical fruits of all kinds, and even vegetables. Royal Riviera pears are still the company's top seller.

The company supports shipments of its exclusive gifts by a most rigid guarantee: “You and those who receive your gifts must be delighted, or we'll make it right, with either an appropriate replacement or a refund—whichever you prefer.”

The hundreds of different shapes and sizes of produce and other gifts are packed in a wide range of decorative, corrugated, telescoping cases featuring lids printed in multiple colors with Harry and David's signature graphics. While ensuring peak quality of all of its products is no small feat, bringing the crops to market is especially challenging. The company harvests the fruit and packs the fragile, perishable produce, as well as its delicate sweets and other items, wrapping each piece of fruit carefully by hand in gold foil or tissue-like, moisture-resistant film and placing it into handsomely decorated gift packs.

The packs are then quickly transported from the plant as efficiently and quickly as possible, without damaging the contents. Speed is definitely of the essence to ensure that the crops maintain their peak ripeness as they move from Harry and David's orchards at Bear Creek Operations, Inc. in Medford through the supply chain. However, speed without due care to the harvested fruit can mean sacrificing quality for efficiency. Bruised or otherwise physically damaged fruit is the most obvious consequence, but other dangers also lurk.

Freshly harvested fruit from the orchards and other fresh foods have a short shelf life and constitute active biological systems, so they continue to “breathe” oxygen. The atmosphere inside fruit-filled packages constantly changes as gases and moisture are produced during the metabolic process. This can pose problems if the packaging isn't filled correctly or is made of unsuitable materials. The concentration of carbon dioxide can increase so radically that moisture is produced, causing a rise in humidity in the package's headspace. This encourages the growth of microorganisms that spoil the soft fruit tissue.

In order to protect the physical appearance of its fruit, Harry and David adopted packaging that helps prevent spoilage and fruit-tissue damage. This meant upgrading its case-sealing operation with rugged, automatic Little David Model SP3-FA/HD taping machines from Loveshaw, an ITW company (www.loveshaw.com). The tapers replace staplers that gradually became outmoded as order productivity soon outpaced their capacity, especially during busy holiday seasons. Stapling the shipments closed occasionally ran the risk of damaging the fruit.

According to Chris McGee, Harry and David's product engineering manager, the new SP3-FAHD case-sealing system had to meet a number of the usual requirements, such as a rugged construction and portability and be speedy enough to automatically apply tape at rates exceeding 36 packs/min. The machine's top and bottom cartridges are adjustable to accommodate different shipper sizes, and it can compress cases that are overstuffed to create a full-telescoping-style container that inhibits damage to the fruit inside.

“Our goal is to ship the fruit to our customers so that they can eat it ripe,” says McGee. “This certainly is the trick.”

But Harry and David also has some rather unusual needs, like going after the best, ripe fruit it can find. “Our business is seasonal, so we need to chase the fruit. When a crop is at its peak, we need to get there quickly and package it right off the branch,” McGee says, adding that the company wanted a machine that actually can operate effectively outdoors in the fields, and be shipped to various outdoor packaging sheds across the country, if necessary, depending on where the fruit is being harvested.

The system has to be capable of applying top pressure to the cases to keep the telescoping lids pressed down tightly while tape is applied to the leading edge, bottom and trailing edge. Flexibility is also a must, says McGee. The taper has to accommodate a wide range of package sizes and configurations.

It's a tall order to satisfy Harry and David's requirement of being able to “chase the fruit,” from region to region when crops are at their peak, Loveshaw agrees. But it can be done, with the addition of forklift pickup channels at the bottom of the machine that allow it to be lifted from any of its four sides, and its sturdy frame helps prevent damage when it's moved.

According to Loveshaw engineers, Harry and David's project is the first where one of their machines has been built “to-go.” Says McGee, “The tapers have been built to be structurally strong, with forklift access and supports.”

Harry and David has since purchased 10 of the c-clip-style Little David taping machines in various versions and installed them on packaging lines at the Medford facility. They are also used at many of the company's outside pack locations around the country. “The outside locations can include packaging sheds at the orchard locations, as well as indoor packaging facilities where the fruit is sent. But we use the machines indoors whenever possible,” McGee says.

He adds, “There are a lot of sealers that can do the basic job of taping a case. But we needed one that could be moved. We also needed one that could prevent the trailing edge of our overstuffed cases from springing up, in response to pressure applied to the fruit.”

The trick is in the filling of the cases. It's hard to believe, but the telescoping cases must be overfilled, McGee explains, because it's part of a protective packaging strategy that actually keeps the fruit from getting bruised. “There's a foam pad in the bottom of each case and one that's placed over the top of the fruit to protect it,” he says. “Between the pads, the fruit sits snugly in corrugated dividers. The top foam pad protrudes slightly over the rim of the case, which is why the case is overfilled. The idea is to have the case top press down and trap the individual pieces of the fruit between the two foam pads with enough pressure to keep the fruit from shifting around and getting scuffed and bruised.”

Adding to this challenge, Harry and David needed a machine that wouldn't jam—a problem with overfill applications, McGee points out. Jams can significantly slow down production, which is deemed “unacceptable” by Harry and David.

While some of the production lines still rely on manual taping, the Loveshaw tapers are positioned at the end of five different packaging lines that pack fruit and foods like sausage and cheese and other assorted items the company classifies as “banquet products,” between the telescoping lid formers (these and other case-erecting equipment is from SWF Companies [www.swfcompanies.com]) and the hand-palletizing stations. The cases are provided by various sources, including Weyerhaeuser (www.weyerhaeuser.com). To find a way for the tapers to compress the cases' telescoping lids consistently and evenly as the 2-in.-wide, clear, pressure-sensitive tape from Intertape Corp. (www.intertapepolymer.com) is applied, Loveshaw's engineers designed the SP3-FA/HD for Harry and David with a single, 18-in.-wide conveyor belt that transports each filled, “uncompressed” case into a top-driven compression section where two more belts along the outer edges of the top of the case press down tightly. Almost simultaneously, two side belts drive the case forward through two bottom-taping heads. Each head first applies tape to the bottom of the case, continues across the bottom and finishes about halfway up the trailing edge of the lid.

Loveshaw also added a linear tucking device to the machines. The device consists of two rods that stroke forward and push firmly against the trailing edge of the case for a tight fit between case bottom and lid. “This feature, combined with the constant pressure exerted on the top of the case, gives us the tight, gap-free taping we asked for. It's really the key to the whole system,” says McGee.

The case sealers use native “intelligence” to determine whether sufficient tape has been applied. With every revolution of the clutch roller, a small flap resembling a shark's fin breaks an electron beam. The machine's programmable logic controller (PLC) records the number of breaks throughout the run. Too few breaks in the beam means the wrong length of tape has probably been applied, tripping an alarm and automatically shutting down the machine.

After fruit-packing operators on the lines load the fruit into the bottom of the telescoping cases, the cases convey to a finishing station, where literature and other packaging materials are added. The lids are then applied to the finished cases, which next pass through the tapers. Case height, length and width can be changed, often in a single shift. “It all depends on which fruit we're packing,” says McGee. The SP3-FA/HD machine is adjustable without tools, a benefit McGee says the plant likes. The slide-and-lock construction facilitates changeovers, and a smooth-gliding hand crank adjusts the height of the top compression and the side-driven belts.

As McGee can attest, Harry and David believes the taping system is the cream of the packaging crop. “The machine adjusts to practically any case size we use in minutes with no tools required,” he concludes. “We worked with Loveshaw to develop a taper that fit our extreme production needs and have also found that a slightly smaller version [of the machine, without the infeed compression station] is ideal for transporting on the backs of trucks to various outside packing facilities we have across the country, in California, Washington, Texas, Idaho and other major fruit-growing regions.”


More information is available:
LoveShaw Corp., 800/572-3434. www.loveshaw.com.
Intertape Corp., 800/474-8273. www.intertapepolymer.com.
SWF Companies, 800/344-8951. www.swfcompanies.com.
Weyerhaeuser Co., 253/924-2345. www.weyerhaeuser.com.
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