Published on the 16/05/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton
What seasonal worker shortage? New robotic tech may help ease agricultural labour woes...
Kiwi agricultural robotics and automation company Robotics Plus, has announced a new deal that will see its hi-tech robotic apple packing system hit the international market, initially targeting seasonal labour-shortage prone areas Australia and New Zealand, as well as the US.
The company has signed an agency and distribution agreement with recently formed Global Pac Technologies – a joint venture between US company Van Doren Sales and New Zealand-owned Jenkins Group.
The Robotics Plus apple packer identifies and places apples in their trays – traditionally a labour intensive process – and has the ability to safely handle up to 120 fruit per minute (FPM?), the equivalent of two workers. The technology was originally developed by Massey University graduates, Dr Alistair Scarfe and Kyle Peterson, with the first commercial prototypes completed in 2016.
Robotics Plus CEO Steve Saunders says that between the two companies, Van Doren and Jenkins have a presence in almost every packhouse in New Zealand, Australia and the US.
“We see enormous potential in our new relationship with Global Pac Technologies,” he says.
“Naturally their global packhouse relationships offer exciting opportunities for us to expand distribution of our apple packers to markets beyond New Zealand, but more importantly, they share our vision for the future of packhouse automation. Together we aim to transform the global horticulture industry.”
The deal follows seasonal worker shortages across Australia and New Zealand. The Hawke’s Bay apple industry reported a shortage of around 400 seasonal workers earlier this year. In January it was reported that the southern Australian states were struggling to find casual labour to satisfy fruit picking season demands, with an estimated shortfall of 3,000 in Victoria alone.
Agricultural robotics and automation may provide some relief, says Jenkins GM, Jamie Lunam.
“Apple packhouses already use automation extensively for sorting and grading, but the process of arranging apples in trays for export is still highly labour intensive,” says Lunam.
“Labour shortages are a major and growing concern in New Zealand and many other food producing countries. We see Robotics Plus and their packing technology as game-changing for the industry. It is a very exciting time to be involved in helping to affect this positive change.”
The global apple industry has been packing apples the same way for decades, says Van Doren CEO, Brett Pittsinger.
“Labour shortages are now causing major headaches for packhouses in the United States. It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm amongst packhouses when they see the potential of this technology.”
Robotics Plus chief technical officer, Dr Alistair Scarfe says Robotics Plus carried out our first commercial trials of the packer last season and were delighted with the results.
“Our scaled commercial trials were mostly carried out in New Zealand, but we also sent a packer to the United States, where it was trialled in their huge packhouses. As a result we now have huge demand from both markets, with production underway to fulfil the orders.”
“We now have huge demand from both markets, with production underway to fulfil the orders.”
The packers are the first of a suite of horticulture automation technologies in development by Robotics Plus, who recently secured investment from Yamaha Motor Co. (Japan). The technologies aim to address major issues in the horticulture industry caused by labour shortages and increasing consumer demand for fresh fruit.
Applying cutting edge science to traditional agricultural systems is at the heart of the Robotics Plus business strategy. The company is working closely with universities and research institutes to develop a range of other technologies including a robotic kiwifruit harvester, robotic pollinator, autonomous agricultural vehicle and a robotic truck scanner.
Saunders says the investment from Yamaha earlier this year and the formalising of the relationship with Global Pac Technologies, means Robotics Plus is in a period of accelerated growth, all of which has the benefit of attracting new talent to the company.
“There are some very clever young engineers coming out of New Zealand universities. We’ve found that if you show them the customer needs and give them the right equipment they can achieve amazing results.”