11 May 2018

Shortage-stricken growers to reap fruits of new tech

2:12 pm on 11 May 2018

Seasonal labour shortages in the country's orchards could soon be a thing of the past as robotic machines start picking up the work.

Robotics Plus was commercially releasing robotic apple packers later this month, both here and overseas.

Robotics Plus was commercially releasing robotic apple packers later this month, both here and overseas. Photo: Supplied

The commercial release of robotic apple packers was happening later this month, both here and overseas, and one of the lead developers said the technology could also help kiwifruit growers in the future.

The kiwifruit industry was experiencing a lack of pickers and the shortage had left growers struggling to keep up with demand in the Bay of Plenty.

Robotics Plus chief technology officer Alistair Scarfe, whose Bay of Plenty company developed the robot, said there was no reason robotics could not be developed for other horticulture, such as kiwifruit.

Robotics Plus chief technology officer Alistair Scarfe, whose Bay of Plenty company developed the apple packer robot, said there was no reason robotics could not be developed for other horticulture.

Robotics Plus chief technology officer Alistair Scarfe, whose Bay of Plenty company developed the apple packer robot, said there was no reason robotics could not be developed for other horticulture. Photo: Supplied

Getting the robotic apple packers deployed was the company's first priority but after that, Mr Scarfe said anything was possible.

"It is really exciting what other produce we can apply it to," he said.

"The team grabbed some nectarines and peaches and tipped them into the machine to see what it did and we were surprised that it packed them really well.

"To apply and tune the machine for other produce is really quite feasible."

The machine takes graded-apples and rotates them and packs them into display trays for market.

He said the time the robots took to pack was variable compared with it being done manually.

"Our machine is equivalent to about two people working on presentation quality packs which is pretty exciting," Mr Scarfe said.

"We can pack about 120 apples per minute," he said.

He described the innovation as assistive-technology because it freed up resources they needed for the more critical roles in the packing shed.

"It allows packhouses to grow and others to maintain through-put or maybe run for a couple of hours during peak periods to allow them to keep up with demand," he said.

With the help of Jenkins Freshpac Systems, US-based Van Doren Sales Inc and Global Pac Technologies, the company trialled machines in Nelson orchards last year and were now ready to go commercial.