“We are finding these machines offer us a compact footprint. And while it is early days, productivity is promising.”
He and Apata Group chief executive officer Stuart Weston stressed the technology was not putting staff out of work, but rather giving the company the opportunity to reallocate the positions.
“For every worker in the orchard there are 2.5 in the pack house. So for us it is a case of focusing on what we can do on the floor, and re-allocating that finite resource of people to picking,”
Automation is playing out in two arenas within the industry at present, within pack houses and on orchards with the design and construction of autonomous harvesting platforms developed by Tauranga company Robotics Plus.
Weston said all post-harvest processors are facing the same issues of labour constraints, with the overheads in securing and housing labour quite prohibitive.
“We are told we will need about another 6000 in coming years, and no one really seems to know where we would get them from, and where we would even house them.”
He said the industry had three key capital-intensive areas competing for funding as fruit volumes continue to grow. These are automation, staff accommodation and cool store facilities.
“This pack house [Mends Lane] is something of a beta test bed for new technology,” said Weston.
“If we can get the pack house operating on a true 24/7 basis using this technology, we stand to increase its productivity by 50 percent.”