Apr 06, 2018

It doesn't need to be a crisis

The produce sector makes a lot of noise around labour shortages at this time of year when orchards and pack houses scramble to get fully stocked with willing and able people to get product from trees and vines, into boxes and on to ships. But this year it is louder, and the plight is only set to worsen, exponentially.

While New Zealand enjoys record unemployment lows it brings with it a raft of other troubles for the likes of the horticulture sector. Thousands of seasonal staff are required to harvest and process our export crops every year, and every year it gets harder to find them. The seasonality of the various crops is the core of the issue - we can’t expect 10,000 people to sit around all year waiting to pick and pack apples for a couple of months, can we?

There is only one logical explanation in my view – automation and robots. At the risk of sounding like an Auckland roading network advocate, this is not the industry’s problem, this is a national problem. Horticulture presents an awesome opportunity to rise to the top of the pile when it comes to national exports, and it will never achieve this by continuing to do what we are currently doing. I know I am preaching to the converted here and I offer nothing new. But I guess the tricky bit is the fixation on return on investment. Not all returns are entirely tangible.

In looking to help solve the problem we travel the world to industry tradeshows and conferences looking at emerging technologies. While many solutions look set to come from abroad, on this occasion we found our latest one on our back door step in Tauranga. Robotics Plus and its formidable team of engineers and scientists have been perfecting a robotic apple packer, amongst other ingenious creations, over the last nine years at their facility in Te Puna, just west of Tauranga. Once it was proven to be a winner it came time to find partners to take it to market which is when Steve Saunders, CEO of Robotics Plus, and I got together to see how our respective companies could change the game on how we have traditionally packed our apples.

The Yummy Fruit Company was the first cab off the rank to order this exciting new robot with their first one commissioned last week at their Hastings facility, there are some installed in Nelson and a shipment is due to head to the states next month to one of Washington’s largest apple packers. It is an exciting time for all concerned. Retrofitting easily over existing pack line infrastructure the machine is up and running in half a day, replacing 1-2 employees and packing fruit at up to 120 pieces per minute. It is a very quickly deployed labour saving solution to a big and growing problem.

The apple packer is one of a raft of technologies coming on line to turn what is being dubbed a labour crisis into what is simply part of mechanisation of a traditionally labour intensive process. This process has been evolving for years in the FMCG and pharma sectors and should transition into our patch with relative ease. But the ROI question is the big hurdle for many. While most technologies do have an ROI of some sort, the actual return is not as tangible. If our industry is set to double, and we can’t effectively staff it now, then how will we cope in 2020 and beyond? It is a simple answer from my view – if we don’t change, we won’t cope. It is not a question of ROI, it is a question of logic.

Stop growing or automate.

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