Soft fruit harvest and packing technology developed by Greg and Alison Furniss
BBC Technologies in Hamilton is the world’s leading supplier of blueberry sorting and packing machinery and has expanding markets for its high quality equipment to sort and pack cherries, small tomatoes, dates, cranberries, and other delicate products such as olives and mushrooms. It has customers in 25 countries across North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. BBC was founded in 2000 by the Furniss family, New Zealand’s largest blueberry growers, as a development from their need for pack house machinery, which had been built and tested on their own orchards.
BBC Technologies employs 120 people from its new head office and manufacturing plant near the Hamilton airport. In its 15thyear, the company and its products grew out of the packing line machinery developed by founders Greg and Alison Furniss, pioneers since the 1980’s in the NZ blueberry industry.
From the mid-1990’s machine harvesting created a huge hand-sorting requirement and the need for a colour sorter machine. After looking at expensive overseas options, the Furniss’ began working on machines to meet their own requirements.
BBC Technologies was established as a separate entity after their first electronic colour sorter was sold into the US in 1999. Work began on soft sorting and then fill-by-weight packing machines, with all their interlinks and electronics. Over 80% of the machines built and sold by BBC around the world are for blueberries, 10-15% for cherries and the remainder for other soft fruits. During 2014, the company sold 280 machines, 98% of them exported. Individual sales range from pieces of “dumb” equipment like conveyor belts up to million-dollar, turn-key, completely new installations of the whole sorting and packing line.
Exports began into the United States, where there is a huge blueberry industry, but in recent times Latin America has overtaken the US in numbers of sales made. BBC had a growth rate of 45% in 2013 and 25% in 2014 by sales revenue. Europe is now the fastest growing region.
BBC Technologies categorises its products:
- Vision-based sorting for blueberries, tomatoes and cherries, including defect recognition and removal.
- Fill-by-weight stations with up to 16 heads.
- Soft sorters by physical attributes of fruit without damage to delicate products.
- FreshTracker of fruit from harvest through the pack house, distribution centre and then point-of-sale.
- Supporting equipment like conveyors and sorting tables.
- Turn-key solutions of whole packing lines.
Turn-key solutions are complete processing lines from fresh fruit receipt to clamshell packages that are retail-ready, including full traceability. Geoff Furniss calls this the “one throat to choke” option for customers wanting full responsibility for design, manufacture, installation and performance. It is a very strong proposition for new blueberry growing countries, Geoff said.
The major competition around the world in this space tends to be “fast-followers” of BBC Technologies innovations. Their products don’t have a lot of patent protection, having weighed up the cost of getting patents and possibly enforcing them, but rely on innovation and experience to stay ahead.
The research and development pillars are light-based sensing, soft fruit detection, multi-head pack filling and the peripheral, traceability parts.
BBC Technologies invests 8% of revenue back into R&D, which is almost all internal spend and a very important foundation for the company.
Mechanical, electrical and software engineers are recruited here and overseas for specialised roles.
Geoff Furniss believes the already achieved growth rates for the business are sustainable, given the expansion into other fruits and the territories the company is expanding into. “We have to make sure growth is profitable and being done for the right reasons, rather than just growth for growth’s sake. We have a lot of opportunities ahead of us, so it is trying to pick the right ones. Blueberries and cherries are hot fruits around the world, especially in developing horticultural countries like those in South America and Eastern Europe.”