If the average consumer gives any thought to how the fruit they buy is packaged they probably have a romantic image of a farmer sorting his harvest into trays in a sun-filled barn. In reality, it is likely to have been correctly organised by a machine costing millions of dollars, operating on state of the art software and using sophisticated cameras to sort up to 30 units of fruit per second on the basis of size, shape, quality and colour. And if the fruit in question happens to be cherries, it’s likely to have been processed on a machine manufactured by GP Graders.
Stuart Payne, who along with his brother Ian, took over the running of GP Graders in 2005, divides the company’s history into pre and post electronic sorting eras.
“Dad wasn’t an engineer but he developed machines, first for processing the post-harvest fruit on his family’s farm, then the farms in the region and finally farms all across the country. By the mid-80s he was providing complete grading and packing solutions for stone, pome and citrus fruit growers throughout Australia. In 1987 some cherry growers approached him to create a machine that would sort cherries, which wasn’t an easy task given how delicate they are, not to mention their troublesome long stems.”
GP Graders developed a cherry-sorting machine and while it worked well enough that the company was eventually able to start exporting it to countries such as Turkey, Greece and Italy, it was still essentially a conventional mechanical grader.
“The issue with those types of machines is that they aren’t particularly accurate,” explains Payne. “They are essentially a series of tapered steel shafts which the fruit falls through. You are limited in the number of size grades you can have and larger fruit often ends up with the smaller fruit, costing the farmer money. Plus you’d still need to employ lots of people to examine the fruit for defects and possibly sort it into different colour grades given some markets want lighter-coloured cherries and some want darker.”
It was during a trip to Spain that Payne first glimpsed the future. “The Spanish were talking about moving to the electronic sizing and grading of cherries. The technology was in its elementary stages but I became convinced that the future lay in a machine where cherries would pass under a camera system and be electronically sorted on the basis of size, shape and colour.”
But Payne soon discovered why nobody had been able to produce a reliable electronic sorting system. “Cherries have a short shelf life so we could never store them or test prototypes in our own facilities – we had to ask our best customers if we could involve them in our R&D in their facilities. Then we had to convince a Dutch company called Ellips to develop a camera and software to make the electronic grader work.”
Within a year GP Graders had developed and sold its first electronic grader for cherries but the big breakthrough was yet to come.
“The Holy Grail was developing a system where the cameras could identify defective fruit, allowing packing houses to replace human sorters with more reliable cameras, thereby both improving product quality and saving millions in labour costs,” Payne says.
On the 1st December, 2011, Payne got an early Christmas present. “That day changed the fortunes of our company,” Payne reminisces. “We had developed an electronic system with a defect detection system for a Chilean customer called Copefrut and that was the day it was switched on – and it worked. All the reject fruit was ejected, just as it should have been.”
Market dominance followed shortly thereafter. “Most of the top cherry packers in Australia are now on GP Grader’s new systems and we are actively selling to all the top packers in Chile and the US,” Payne says. “We’ve got our machines in more than 20 countries. A couple of days ago we activated a 20 lane machine that can process 12 tonnes of cherries an hour, with 30 per cent of the staff that were previously required, for the world’s largest cherry packer in the US. Next year we’ll have a machine operating in California that can process 26 tonnes of fruit an hour.
Now it’s cracked the US market and got a brand that’s internationally recognised, the company is in a big expansion phase. “We just signed a lease on a 20,000 square foot facility in Seattle that will manufacture the machines and we’re currently taking on American staff. We turned over $25 million this year and I’m expecting that to jump to $35-$40 million next year,” says Payne.
Payne is also alert to the lucrative growth opportunities on offer if GP Grader’s proprietary technology can be used more widely. “Shellfish looks promising. Oysters, abalone and clams, which are currently graded by hand, are an obvious fit with electronic grading, as are grape tomatoes and possibly walnuts,” he says.
Payne credits the growth of GP Graders to the Australian DNA embedded in the company. “Being Australian has played a big part in what we’ve achieved,” says Payne. “Firstly because Australians are innovators, we’re good at generating and executing ideas. Secondly because Australia is a perfect test market. It’s a small, cut-throat marketplace where customer expectations are high. So if you can develop something that works there you’ve almost certainly got a bloody good product that is going to work elsewhere in the world.”