Jul 11, 2019

On A Silver Pallet: Automation Holds The Solution To Seasonal Labour Shortages

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  • On A Silver Pallet: Automation Holds The Solution To Seasonal Labour Shortages

I’m sure we’ve all read enough of them by now. The headlines, that is. “Seasonal labour shortages strike again!”. They’ve been a recurring theme throughout the industry for far too long now, but...what’s being done about it? The truth is, no matter how much blood, sweat, or tears goes into producing a crop, if there isn’t enough seasonal labour the fruit isn’t going to be picked, packed, or processed for export. It’s that simple. It’s also that much of a struggle. The Kiwifruit and Apple industries, in particular, are feeling the full force of these shortages. It’s creating bottlenecks in packhouses across the country. According to the HortNZ forecast, the labour shortage is expected to reach 3,140 this year alone. What’s worse? That figure is set to hit a staggering 6,428 by 2023 / 2024. This isn’t just a horticulture issue. It’s a national one. Labour shortages don’t just affect growers and packhouses, but the economy as a whole. The knock-on effects start in the packhouse, but they’re felt far beyond those four walls. So we wrap back around to my original question...what’s being done about it? We’re not much for giving up around here, and having seen this issue come and go year-in, year-out, we’re certain technology has more than a passing role to play in making packhouses more efficient, healthier, safer places to work. In fact, it’s already helping packhouses across the country that have embraced change in order to circumvent these issues that are, at this point, a packhouse tale as old as time. Here’s how…


As you’ll know, innovative machinery solutions are at the forefront of what we do here at Jenkins. But palletisers and pallet strapping machines in particular that I have in my sights today as we take a look at some of the exciting opportunities available to New Zealand packhouses looking to put an end to the seasonal woes. Plate palletising is one such solution. It’s not a new concept. It’s been around a while! It’s also proven, requires (potentially) less maintenance, and is proving to be a more economical, simpler, and less scary option than its robotic counterpart. It’s also offering a timely solution for Kiwifruit and Apple packhouses needing to stack fruit trays and cartons in an efficient, effective, and timely manner. Plate palletisation doesn’t just reduce the load on packhouses already struggling to fill positions. It also allows producers to reallocate seasonal workers to areas within the packhouse where their skills are better utilised. It’s an exciting opportunity for the horticulture industry, apple and kiwifruit especially, to streamline systems.


If there’s one thing that buoys my spirits among the dreary headlines, it’s taking a look ahead at what’s on the horizon. The horticulture industry is nothing if not a source of constant innovation, continually evolving to meet the challenges producers face today and into the future. You’d be hard pressed to get me to say I’m not excited to see new machinery and automation entering the industry. As you already know, we’re embracing it in the form of machinery options for packhouses including everything from bag filling machines to bin tippers. Palletisation is quickly joining them. Technology is creating new ways to carry out old processes, including the palletisation of fruit trays. It’s a great way to fill the gaps left by seasonal labour shortages, streamline systems, and remove the chance of human error from the process. From a Health & Safety perspective, it also eliminates the potential for stacking injuries. Manually lifting boxes - at up to 18KG a piece! - above head height day-in, day-out is, as you’d expect, fraught with risk. Robotic palletisation is a great example of a technology that addresses these issues. It essentially uses an electronically programmed gantry robot arm to place fruit cartons on pallets ready for export. While this new technology is very cool, it’s also still an expensive option for some. That said, it’s fast becoming a more affordable, viable option for producers


Solving the labour shortage problem once and for all isn’t easy, and it isn’t simple. That said, with new and existing technology available for packhouses across the country, producers are increasingly being given proven, reliable solutions that should one day see those pesky headlines becoming a thing of the past. You can be sure we’ll keep providing exciting, efficient, and safer palletising solutions until that day comes, and beyond!

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