Here’s a fun, if alarming little fact I’ve been thinking about recently:
By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 Billion.
That’s Billion, with a B - a massive twenty-five percent increase over our current population.
That’s also a lot of hungry mouths to feed from one finite resource. Though the futuristic Jetson family happily sitting around the dining room table consume their food in pill form, people are still going to expect fresh fruit and vegetables on their plates for a while to come.
In the interim, the produce industry is expected to pick up the slack. In order to meet this growing demands? Everyone and their dog is looking for an advantage in order to harvest, process, package, and deliver products to consumers with lower margins, at higher volumes, at much faster speeds.
If the title didn’t already give it a way, we think automation has a major role to play now and into the future. It’d be funny if we didn’t! It’s this unique and emerging combination of automated technology and data exchange - Industry 4.0 as we’ve called it in the past - that holds many of the answers.
THE PACKHOUSE OF TOMORROW, TODAY
Take a second to try and picture a ‘Lights Off’ packhouse of the future. It’s here that produce moves through optical sorting and grading, while robotics pack, stack, and palletise. All of this as integrated software systems and machinery talk to one another, share information, and then adjust operations on the fly in order to meet demands or changing conditions.
Ok, so there’s a little ways to go before we achieve this utopian vision of a fully integrated and automated packhouse. With that said, even today’s systems are a technological sight to behold with very real benefits to offer packhouses across New Zealand and the globe.
Here are a few of our favourites:
1. BIG DATA IS A BIG DEAL
The path to automation begins with data.
This is a path that many forward-thinking packhouses have already started to walk, collecting data that monitors equipment maintenance, checks food safety, and even improves defect grading and monitors throughput for cost-per-pack measured against KPIs.
Today, this data helps managers make real-time decisions with all the information in front of them.
In the future, it will assist automated machinery in decision making processes that provide even greater benefits.
2. UNCERTAIN TIMES REQUIRE RELIABLE SOLUTIONS
I hate to break it to you, but we’re all human. At least, for the time being! Which is to say, your packhouse employees aren’t infallible. They get sick, they take holidays, and in some cases switch jobs in search of greener grass (or more fertile crop pastures, as the case may be).
To further exacerbate the ‘people issue’, the pipeline is a dwindling rollercoaster ride year-in, year-out that no one enjoys riding yet we’re all still strapped in whether we like it or not. Just last year, the Tasman district and Bay of Plenty both officially declared seasonal labour shortages, and we can almost guarantee the issues will persist long into the future.
Augmenting manual packhouse processes with automated machinery alleviates many of the menial tasks and releases some of that pressure. It’s a no-brainer. Robotics don’t require recruiting or training, they work faster, are more accurate and reliable, and alleviate labour shortages.
Will the packhouse every be fully automated? It’s a balancing act. As I mentioned when we looked at lowering cost-per-pack, humanity will always remain at the heart of the packhouse, but automation’s ability to enhance the process can’t be understated or ignored.
3. COST EFFECTIVENESS & EFFICIENCY IS KEY
Reducing cost per pack and increasing throughput still sit at the top of the priority list for most packhouses, as does reducing labour costs which remain one of the largest operating expenses.
While automation can require an initial outlay, the return on this investment is key. Automated machinery begins to pay for itself the minute it’s switched on, with that return only increasing as wages rise.
Automation in manual areas like grading, sorting and packing can increase accuracies while freeing up employees to work in other areas like fruit picking to utilise your human resources for maximum return.
4. SCALING UP TO THE TASK AT HAND
High volumes and low margins are the secret to scaling food production, especially if we’re going to meet the demands posed by those population numbers I mentioned earlier.
This almost requires going beyond the limitations of wholly manual labour. A workforce can only work so many hours, after all. Automation, on the other hand, can guarantee a consistency that can scale up when required in order to produce larger volumes, at a quicker speed, over longer time periods.
5. IMPROVED HEALTH & SAFETY KEEPS EVERYONE HAPPY
Packhouses are inherently physically dangerous places for the workforce. Whether it’s heavy lifting, working on a processing line, or moving around vehicle traffic, the risks for injury are high. Even the strictest procedures and policies can’t mitigate the human element.
It isn’t just your employees that are at risk, either. It’s a two-way street, with employees also posing health implications to the produce itself. Human pathogens can be - and have been - found on food contact surfaces and in produce handling, which can have serious health implications.
Automation reduces the human involvement in some of the riskiest or most hazardous parts of the process, making the packhouse a safer environment for workers and produce alike.
AUTOMATION IS A MATTER OF WHEN, NOT IF
It’s safe to say integrated automation is the future for the horticulture industry. Smart packhouses are already leading the revolution with automated technology that allows them to remain competitive and profitable now and into the future as margins become tighter and demand grows.