Yamaha ups investment in BOP’s Robotics Plus

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Yamaha Motor Co has made a follow-up investment in Bay of Plenty agri-automation company Robotics Plus, bringing its total funding commitment to US$10 million (NZ14.6 million).

Robotics Plus announced that Yamaha, which formed a partnership agreement and made an investment of US$2 million in March 2018, announced the additional $US 8 million in November.

The funding will support the company’s growth plans, said Steve Saunders, co-founder and chairman of Robotics Plus, who is currently establishing a US subsidiary for the company.

“We are very pleased to have continued strengthening our partnership with Yamaha Motor and secured additional investment to support our vision to grow into a truly New Zealand, global business that will transform a number of industries,” said Saunders, who is well-known in BOP agri-tech and Maori business circles.

“This investment will allow us to take the company to the next level and attract and retain the world class talent we need,” said Saunders.

“To stay ahead of the opportunity we need to scale quickly, not just with our apple packers that are already in market, but also with our new UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) platform technology and other projects under development.”

Making agriculture more sustainable

Hiro Saijo, chief executive of Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley, said the investment would help the Japanese company reach a goal to make agriculture more sustainable, healthy, and secure.

“To meet the significant and increasing agriculture demands of today and tomorrow, including agricultural labour shortage globally, we need to create sophisticated and precision robotics and automation technologies that will transform the agricultural industries.”

Robotics Plus will leverage Yamaha Motor’s experience, knowledge and technologies in outdoor vehicles, factory automation, robotics, design for manufacturing and manufacturing.

Recently appointed Robotics Plus chief executive Dr Matt Glenn said the two companies had developed a mutually beneficial commercial relationship.

“We can benefit from their specialist knowledge in precision automation, manufacturing and access to high quality components to help us develop our technologies,” he said. “Yamaha Motor can benefit from working with Robotics Plus as a world leading robotics and automation business focusing on the agricultural and horticultural markets.

Glenn said the New Zealand company had developed a highly skilled development team located close to orchards and other agricultural environments and could rapidly prototype new ideas, validate new components and integrate these into its robotic systems.

“This will also create new opportunities to develop technologies in other markets.”

This investment will allow us to take the company to the next level and attract and retain the world class talent we need.– Steve Saunders

In May, Robotics Plus’ robotic Āporo apple packers were the first in a suite of technologies to be commercially launched. The apple packer, which identifies and places apples in display trays, can safely handle up to 120 fruit per minute. It is being marketed by Global Pac Technologies, a joint venture formed by Jenkins Group (NZ/Australia) – whose local arm Jenkins Freshpac features as Westpac Tauranga Business Awards overall winner on this month’s cover – and Van Doren Sales (US). The apple packer is already operating in packhouses in New Zealand and the USA.

Other technologies under development to address major issues in the horticulture industry caused by labour shortages and increasing consumer demand for fresh fruit, include: an autonomous agricultural vehicle, robotic kiwifruit harvester, robotic pollinator, crop estimator, and a number of confidential projects.

Māori heritage plays role

Saunders says his Māori heritage has played a role in Robotics Plus’ development.

“We have a common desire to meet future challenges to feed the world in a sustainable way with smart automation and intelligent robotics. This partnership and going global is truly exciting. The institutional knowledge Yamaha Motor brings creates a fantastic opportunity to develop our great young talent out of
New Zealand.”

Dr Glenn said that solving the big agricultural issues of the future meant the need to support the horticultural and agricultural industries with innovative solutions that will enable them to do things differently.

“We have the ability to solve big global challenges like this from New Zealand, and the way we can achieve that faster is with the support of an international company like Yamaha Motor.”

Robotics Plus was well-positioned to deliver on its vision to be a world leader in robotics and automation technology for the food and fibre industries, he said.

“In addition to Yamaha Motor, we also have commercial partnerships with Global Pac Technologies, ISO Limited and Trimax,” said Dr Glenn.

Robotics Plus had also established valuable collaborative research relationships with the University of Waikato, the University of Auckland, Massey University and Plant & Food Research, and we are a founding partner of PlantTech, an industry-led research organisation based in the Western Bay of Plenty, he said.

“Our innovation and growth plans are well-supported by our private investors as well as New Zealand Government agencies, Callaghan Innovation, NZTE, MBIE, MPI and TPK.”

Yamaha now has a 15 per cent holding in Robotics Plus, according to the Companies Office. The balance of shares is held by Robotics Plus’s co-founders Steve Saunders and robotics PhD and chief technical office Dr Alistair Scarfe.

The Aporo apple packer in action. Photo/Supplied.
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