Success in this industry of ours is a numbers game, and it’s increasingly played in the margins. How are production numbers stacking up? Output volume? Cost-per-pack? Numbers like these determine whether producers sleep soundly as the sun sets on Kiwi packhouses, or whether they’re left tossing and turning till the sun rises the following day.
Speaking of numbers, here’s one that’s given me cause for concern: A large portion of packhouses across the ditch report a poor understanding of post-harvest costs. Before you breathe a sigh of relief, that small stretch of Tasman doesn’t mean New Zealand is free from similar struggles. That’s one heck of a blind spot for an industry where margins are fine, and the margin for error even finer.
The question is...where to from here?
Knowledge is a major factor. If you’ve kept your ear to the soil, so to speak, you’ll have heard the song and dance over ‘Big Data’. And yet...Industry 4.0 remains heard but rarely seen as we push into the latter half of 2018. Much to Jamie’s lament.
The long-awaited fourth industrial revolution may be taking its sweet time, but we can’t afford to sit around. Inaction can be costly. Especially in the fruit and vegetable industry which is changing, and changing fast. As we found this year, packhouses across the country are finally climbing aboard the hype train that is progress, but there’s always more to be done in the search for lower costs-per-pack.
Shock horror, we’re a big proponent of automated processing and packaging technology in circumstances like this. Even more so when many Kiwi packhouses still operate on the whim of labour shortages or raises in the minimum wage, which can send shockwaves through the production line.
Today I wanted to outline a few of the ways we’ve found automation can help tighten those margins:
1. DO MORE WITH LESS WHILE MAXIMISING RETURNS & WORKER SAFETY
Here’s another number for you. In that earlier study, which examined the costs of 11 Aussie Packhouses, it was found that “...storing, packing, grading and selling apples collectively added an average extra $1.06/kg to growers’ costs, with grading and packing making up 65 per cent of that cost.”
It’ll come as little surprise to learn wages make up a large portion of these processes. Skilled labour is expensive. Both to find, and even more so to keep. With the new government “targeting a $20ph minimum wage by 2021”, that statement will only grow truer over time.
Thankfully, there are solutions for each stage that don’t just increase output, but also maximise overall efficiency. Intelligently designed bin tippers facilitate the handling, counting, and dumping of fresh produce so that you can meet the demands of modern production. Automated bagging machines like the Vert-Bag make it that much quicker and easier to package anything from Garlic and Chestnuts through to Potatoes and Nuts. All while food industry approved, fully-automatic tray sealing machines boast throughputs of 6 to 8 trays per minute. To name just a few.
2. CIRCUMVENT LABOUR SHORTAGES ON THE PACKHOUSE FLOOR
In the war against rising running costs, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the expenses involved in having workers on the packhouse floor...but what happens when you can’t find any in the first place?
Labour shortages are nothing new. They continue to plague the fresh produce industry. That said, they are increasingly costly. Managerial time wasted juggling what limited workforce you have to plug the gaps is never fun. Neither is workers pushed to their limits covering shifts and running overtime. It’s pure packhouse pandemonium, if you’ll pardon the puns.
Automated end-to-end solutions ensure you can do more, with less. Take punnet handling, for example. With an automatic punnet filling machine you can fill 2 or 4 punnets simultaneously, including Flowpack, Easypunnet, and Ecopunnet. And that’s just one example. What about labelling? Weighing? Or palletising? As the adoption rate of automated machinery increases, the downtime, overtime costs, and operating headaches of labour shortages decrease. As do costs-per-pack. It’s that simple.
3. SIT BACK AND WATCH YOUR RETURN ON INVESTMENT RISE OVER TIME
The overwhelming focus on automated machinery and its Return on Investment can, at times, be shortsighted. There are savings to be made in the short term, yes. But the fresh produce industry is also uniquely placed in its ability to maximise that ROI over time, in so much as its worth increases over time, not the other way around.
How so? I’ve already discussed the proposed increases to the minimum wage set to take place in New Zealand over the coming years. Not to mention the incentives, packages, and proposals required to retain experienced packhouse staff. Every time the minimum wage increases, the value of automated machinery to your operation increases. That’s yet more money saved that would have had to have been spent on wage increases. It’s a rare win.
A LOWER COST-PER-PACK IS WELL WITHIN REACH
Finally, to the question on everyone’s lips...does this foreshadow Judgement Day for workers on the packhouse floor? Hardly. We won’t be seeing T1000s any time soon. Far from it, in fact. You’ll forgive us for admitting we’re big fans of automation’s ability to reduce outlay while increasing efficiency and effectiveness…but humanity remains, and will remain, at the heart of any great packhouse.
One of the greatest benefits of automation is its ability to augment existing packhouse processes while taking pressure off of budgets and workers alike. Fewer daily interactions with machinery result in less room for user error, injury, and general mishaps. It’s a safer, more streamlined packhouse that’s free to run at full capacity, increase packs per hour, and maximise margins. When you’re playing the numbers game, those small savings all add up.