May 25, 2021

In the Eye of the Beholder

My wife still peels the veges using a peeling knife while I use a trusty spud peeler – am I innovative?

There are lots of words that have broad interpretations and innovation is certainly one of them. One persons adoption of technology may be archaic to someone else, but we all accept and employ innovation at different rates, but I am not sure that makes us any different to one another.

The abacus was a great innovation in the second century, with super computers making sure any abaci (yes, I googled that) were destined for ornamental purposes only, and now a small touchscreen device will make all of your arithmetic dreams come true. But it was all innovative. When I apply innovation to our industry, I am always trying to dial things back a bit as the reality is that while horticulture is gagging for smart solutions to problems, it cannot justify or support the mega-tech type of innovation that the likes of FMCG production or the pharma industry can. So we need to pull back somewhat and look for more modular and retrofittable innovations that deliver smaller, but meaningful, improvements to processes and operations. Step change is expensive and risky and our commodity world is a risk averse one.

Whether it is a $70k automatic strapping machine allowing you to redeploy 1.5 labour units to more valuable roles or tasks, or a $15m state of the art grader and vision system allowing you to take 20 people off grading tables to focus on carton handling and coolstore movements, it is all relatively safe, tried and true and it is all innovative.

Innovation of course is not just about physical clever devices or machines, it is also about the employment of smart thinking and outside the box operating methods. I clearly remember a trip up to a small town called Titon in Yakima, Washington State several years back. We were meeting with a customer who was lining up to be one of our first large scale installations in the world of our [then] new technology the Aporo robotic apple packer. All of our thinking and sales speak was focused on installing the packers on the high volume drops so they were thumping away all day. All of our data was solid and the pitch went well, with the customer ordering ten units. But then, he flipped it all on its head. He deployed the ten robotic packers on his slowest drops! This seemed crazy to us, but his innovative thinking was different to ours and his numbers did not lie. He released more labour into other tasks by removing the slow and distracting drops from the hustle of volume packing. His logic was simple – they were already really efficient at packing at pace, but they were very inefficient at packing slowly. We were focused on throughput, and he was focused on dealing with his outliers.

I could waffle on for hours on this topic, however I will let you off the hook, but I will close with reaffirming this point. Innovation is not all about millions of dollars and step change. It is about change for the better, big or small. It is about doing something rather than nothing.

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