Dec 11, 2017

Opinion: Will the lights actually go out?

Opinion: Will the lights actually go out?

In the 48 hours prior to writing this article I have had three extremely interesting conversations with large players in produce packing, all of them looking to us to help clarify what the packhouse of the future looks like. I think we all accept that the status quo is not an option, but will the lights actually ever go out in the packhouse on the back of full automation? I have decided to make the call and say yes. Yes indeed we will turn the lights out in the packhouse and it may be sooner rather than later.

This time of year see’s the Jenkins Freshpac team moving around the country sharing festive cheer with many of our customers. With this comes a lot of conversations over an amber glass or three and what has struck me this year is the difference in those conversations since the same time last year. I am asked every day – what does the pack house of the future look like?

The options and opportunities available for pack house automation are both diverse and immense and this is clearly overwhelming many. There is an industry sentiment and urgency to automate, but the industry, and I accept this as a wide generalisation, is not sure what technologies to back and what the future looks like. We are talking about substantial investments and it is critical that we make durable decisions when applying our dollars.

So, what does this mean and how do we deal with the issue? Jenkins is in the box seat to be a key part of this conversation, and we already are a big part of many of them. Over the course of the calendar year we have made over ten trips into the northern hemisphere in our continued quest for understanding what good looks like and what technologies can translate into the New Zealand market. While we spend a lot of time up there, we know all too well that New Zealand is not Washington and it is not Italy. Not everything that works up there works down under on our scale and with our challenges regarding proximity to market. Some of the solutions will need to come from within, while others can be adopted or adapted from best of breed partners around the globe. We spend a lot of time looking at what I call ‘parallel industries’ because the best solutions won’t always be directly in our patch. A strong case here is technologies we are assessing from the packing and logistics of tyres and how we can translate this into our world – strange but true!

Consider for a moment the breadth of technology we are talking about here. Gantry robots and autonomous vehicles at one extreme, pick and place tray filling in the middle and trusty automated pallet strapping at the other end. They all have their place, but where, and when?

Jenkins Freshpac is now working with the amazing team at Robotics Plus to sell and service the robotic apple packer they have invented, designed and commercialised and are working with our international trusted partners to build on this. We are also entering a joint venture with North America’s premier pack line supplier because they value New Zealand’s contribution to produce packing, and likewise we value theirs. This is the type of partnership and collaboration that turns up with genuine value for our industry. These are clear signals that while we will continue to sell and support the more traditional peripheral lines such as bin tippers and pallet strappers, we are also committed to being a big part of building the nation’s capability around automation.

I write this from the seat of an airplane while pondering the future. I appreciate it poses more questions than it answers, however, this is my very candid way of being crystal clear that we will be a part of turning the lights out on New Zealand pack lines by creating potentially fully automated, 24/7 operations. I am not sure if I have ever been a part of such an exciting industry future at such a critical time in its evolution.

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