New technology continues to reduce labor needs at the bale press. It was not that long ago that six to eight workers were needed to press out a bale. This includes operating the press, placing ties on the bale, collecting samples, placing them into a bag and affixing a PBI label. The automated strapping systems, either plastic or wire, took a lot of the labor out of the baling process, allowing for faster processing speeds while leaving workers to focus on other operations in the gin. Now with automated strapping and bagging equipment, just one or two workers are needed at press speeds as high as 70 to 80 bales per hour. All that's needed is to collect classing samples and attach the PBI tag.
Several companies have developed or are working on automatic bagging systems. One commercially available system can pull two pre-cut samples from the bale, deliver to the operator, place the bale into an approved woven polypropylene bag, close the bag using nylon staples and weigh the bale. All this can be done at rated capacities of 80 bales per hour. That's 1.3 bales per minute. Another system that is in a Joint Cotton Industry Bale Packaging Committee test program performs a similar function while using a polyethylene sheet to form a bag around the bale at high speeds.
The big question is not is this possible, but is it practical? We know that other processing industries utilize all sorts of automated packaging systems as part of the everyday operation. There are two things that have kept this type of automation from the gin. First, ginning is a seasonal operation, and it is hard to justify automation during such a short time period. On average, gins only operate 69 days out of the year. Secondly, the gin is still part of the farming operation and is not contained in a controlled environmental facility. Conditions are dusty, noisy, damp, and temperatures range from zero to 100 degrees.
For a gin operating three months and processing 40,000 to 60,000 bales per year, it is estimated that this type of technology can have a payback in four years. This may seem like a long time considering the variability in farming today, but it is an investment many gin owners are making. There is no doubt that in the future the automatic bagging system will become as common as the automatic strapping and tying systems.
– Thomas D. Valco, PhD, USDA Cotton Technology Transfer, Stoneville, Miss. Contact Valco via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (662) 686-5255.