WENATCHEE, Wash. — Stemilt Growers LLC, one of the largest non-citrus tree fruit companies on the West Coast, is building likely the largest and most advanced automated packed fruit storage and shipping centers in the state.
The 479,000-square-foot facility will be able to store almost 1 million packed boxes of fruit and will allow more efficient handling, palletizing, storage and shipping of product, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt marketing manager.
Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) involves movement, storage and retrieval for shipping of packed boxes of tree fruit with robotic cranes, automated dollies and computerized tracking for efficient flow and significant labor savings.
Matson Fruit Co., Selah, installed such a system three years ago. Reggie Collins, general manager of Chelan Fruit Cooperative, said the co-op considered an ASRS when rebuilding its plant in Chelan destroyed by a 2015 wildfire but decided cost outweighed labor savings.
“We designed our buildings so we can do it in the future, but the systems are millions of dollars and only eliminated 75 percent of our forklift drivers. That’s only six to eight paychecks right now,” he said.
West Mathison, Stemilt president, said he doesn’t know what type of labor savings to expect and looks forward to better understanding the opportunity.
But most ASRS systems eliminate forklift drivers and require only one or two people per shift to monitor components of the system.
Collins said he thinks Matson has the only tree fruit ASRS in Washington and that there are some in California. It is more common in Europe and in the frozen food industry.
In 2013, several cold storage industry organizations estimated an ASRS system saves $2.7 million per year for a plant with 18 workers for each of three shifts and each employee costing about $50,000 in wages, benefits and training.
New conventional storage costs about $115 per square foot and ASRS systems about $170 per square foot, according to cold storage organizations.
ASRS not only saves in labor, but in energy, fire suppression and space. By racking fruit higher, up to three times the storage density of a conventional facility can be achieved.
Stemilt’s ASRS will be somewhat denser than conventional storage but really higher, Pepperl said. It may rack as high as 10 pallet stacks, he said.
A pallet position is where one full pallet can be racked and stored. A multi-layer racking system will allow more than 16,000 pallet positions, Pepperl said.
The new facility is mostly steel framing right now to the immediate north of Stemilt’s Olds Station plant. The 479,000 square feet includes a new concrete building, already up, for 11 rooms of controlled atmosphere pear storage.
Construction began last fall and will be completed in various phases over the next 12 months, he said. Stemilt is not disclosing the cost, he said.
Mathison said he’s really proud of the vendors working on the project.
Beside storage and shipping there will be robotic palletizing of all fruit from the Olds Station plant’s two-year-old, state-of-the-art apple packing line, a one-year-old optic-sizer, multi-color cherry line and an older dark sweet cherry line.
In time the palletizing, ASRS and shipping will serve the former Dovex complex, acquired by Stemilt several years ago, across U.S. Highway 2 and south of the Olds plant, Mathison said. The Dovex complex has two newer cherry lines, two apple lines and a pear line.
Packed fruit will move from the packing plants to the palletizing, ASRS and shipping center through enclosed conveyor systems. There will be 22 truck bays at the shipping dock with room to expand, Pepperl said.
The place where the new facility is being built formerly held thousands of empty apple, pear and cherry bins when they were not in use. They will be stored now in other locations, some closer to orchards, he said.
Stemilt built a new, three-story, 42,700-square-foot corporate office building and cafeteria for all employees at the Olds Station plant in 2014.
Stemilt packs, sells and ships about 20 million boxes of apples, pears, cherries, stone fruit and blueberries annually. Stemilt receives fruit from independent growers and owns, partners and manages more than 14,000 acres of tree fruit. Partners include Douglas Fruit Co., Pasco, and Peshastin Hi-Up northwest of Wenatchee.
Stemilt acquired California cherry producer Chinchiolo Fruit, Stockton, in 2003. Stemilt packs, sells and ships a large percentage of Washington’s organic apples and pears and has about 1,500 full-time employees.