Evolution Fresh, a subsidiary of Starbucks, has long used high-pressure processing (HPP) to create a fresh tasting juice with a considerably extended shelf life. HPP is a non-thermal process that not only helps keep the cold-pressed juice safe by inactivating foodborne pathogens, but the non-thermal process also helps to protect both nutrients and flavor.
However, HPP tends to be a highly manual, labor-intensive process. So after five years of using machines from Hiperbaric—Evolution Fresh now owns five Hiperbaric 420 machines, which can process 1,000 gallons of juice per hour—the juice maker undertook a project to add automation to the HPP process. It partnered with Hiperbaric to create a state-of-the-art automated HPP operation line.
At PACK EXPO International’s Processing Innovation Stage, Evolution Fresh and Hiperbaric talked about their journey. “What we’ve been working on is how do we make this HPP process more sustainable from a labor perspective and from an efficiency perspective,” says Michael Durbin, plant director for Evolution Fresh in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. “This has been a project we’ve been working on over the last several years.”
It’s more important than ever for manufacturers to explore what processes they can automate. Roberto Peregrina, Hiperbaric USA director, points to data showing how many manufacturing jobs were lost to the pandemic. More than 40% of those jobs have yet to be recovered. “One of the main challenges that companies are facing right now is getting entry-level employees in the door,” he says, commenting on a study showing that U.S. manufacturing executives are finding it 36% harder to find the right talent than it was in 2018.
This was a key impetus behind Evolution Fresh’s move to an automated process, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Besides addressing labor shortages, automating HPP processes reduces labor costs, improves productivity and consistency, prevents operator injuries, and minimizes waste.
A labor-intensive process
One of the main challenges that HPP faces is that it’s still a batch process, Peregrina comments. “It’s a post-packaging technology, so the product needs to be put into a chamber and then extracted and then put into cardboard in the final cases,” he says.
|Read how Hiperbaric teamed with Petainer and Nourish Juice Bar to bring cold-pressed juices to plastic kegs.
An operator puts the bottled juices into canisters. The canisters are then loaded into a chamber. After plugging each end, the vessel is flooded with water and the pressure is increased up to 87,000 psi. After maintaining the pressure for a predetermined amount of time, the vessel is depressurized, and then the product can be unloaded.
“It’s still a very manual operation,” Peregrina says. “We have worked extensively over the years with Evolution Fresh, and they have been a champion on allowing us to help automate their operation.”
Evolution Fresh started this project in 2015 by looking at ergonomic concerns. “We had a lot of injuries, repetitive motion, lifting, a lot of triple handling, which we wanted to eliminate. So we created some tilting stations that we were able to fill our products into, and then use a forklift to load the product,” Durbin says. “When we did this, we also added barcodes to the carrier, so it was easier to track the product and our processing parameters that were needed.”
In 2015 and 2016, Evolution Fresh focused on the pre-HPP material handling equipment, including automated filling stations and pre-feeders. In 2021 and into 2022, the juice company also moved into robotic unloading and pick and place to get the bottles back onto the line. Post-HPP automation equipment was installed, with automated dumping of carriers and standup of bottles.
The resulting benefits
“There are many reasons to do this. One is we want to increase our OEE [operational equipment effectiveness], which we increased by about 15% since we started this journey,” Durbin says. “But injury is a big story. We reduced injuries more than 90%.”
Before implementing more automated measures, an HPP operator would lift about 16,000 lb/day of crates of juice before dropping them into carriers. That kind of repetitive motion was not only hard on the operator’s body, but it didn’t particularly inspire them to come into work the next day when they woke up sore from the previous day. So a major goal of the change was to eliminate the risk of injury to employees, Durbin notes.
“We also eliminated more than half of the transportation waste,” Durbin says, pointing to the inefficiency of putting bottles in crates, dumping them out into the HPP carriers, and then unloading the carriers. “There’s just a lot of handling there. By streamlining the process, we fill the carriers, load them into the HPP, and empty them all in one motion.”
Evolution Fresh has not only been able to save time with the streamlined process, but also reduced labor by more than 50%. “It’s getting harder and harder to find people that want to do hard jobs that are manual and in a cold room. And COVID just added to this,” Durbin says. “I couldn’t always count on people being there due to illnesses or different issues surrounding that.”
Since automating the process, the only lifting that workers are doing is placing the empty carrier onto the tilting station, Durbin explains. “The forklift is lifting the full carrier so that the strain is taken off of operators,” he adds.
In addition to automating the labor, the process is making use of barcodes to store information. “It’s really great for traceability, so we can track everything that’s been processed,” Durbin says.
Automating the HPP operation is not for every company, Peregrina notes. “One of the main challenges is the return on investment for a company,” he says. “Obviously, the more you use the machines or the closer you get to 24-hour operations, the easier it is to get a return on your investment.”
In terms of functionality, automation might not be as flexible if it is needed for a series of unrelated tasks.