Robotic apple packing developed by NZ company Robotics Plus ready to go offshore
A Tauranga company is ready to take its apple packing robotics offshore and help remove the headache of finding staff to do mundane work.
The automated apple packing machines place apples in trays "colour up" with the stems aligned, using sensors, software and electromechanical technology, and are expected to remove some of the monotonous work that apple packhouses find difficult to staff.
Robotics Plus has five automated packers operating in Nelson and has plans to enter the United States and other markets. Most of the funding so far has been provided by serial investor Steve Saunders who is chairman and founder of the company which makes other robotic products.
The company's co-founder Dr Alistair Scarfe pitched the potential of the company to angel investors at the New Zealand Agribusiness Investment Showcase run by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise near Palmerston North on Thursday. The company already has about 30 per cent of the multi million dollar injection needed to take the innovation to the next level and is considering bringing in commercial partners.
Commercial trials of the Nelson packers sorted 8.5 million apples and numbers will increase with all of them operating now.
Scarfe said the bruise-free robotic packers were ready to be taken to the market and they had proven themselves at a Nelson packhouse as being faster, more accurate and hygienic and by removing a repetitive and mundane task for workers.
He said New Zealand's apple exports were growing 10 per cent a year and packhouses were struggling to find labour with 14,000 seasonal workers required to service the apple industry.
Strong interest had come from four United States multi-national companies.
"We will be entering the US market later this year. The packers provide better handling instead of people manually picking apples into trays which employers have to house and train and that comes with its health and safety and communication challenges.The apple industry has said our packing technology has the potential to revolutionise the packing industry in the future."
Scarfe did his PhD in autonomous agriculture robotics and his post-graduate studies were funded by Saunders, initially a kiwifruit orchardist, who had a vision to grow the horticultural industry's productivity.
Saunders said the company could go it alone commercially, but was open to the idea of bringing in the right partners as he was an angel investor himself.
He said the technology was addressing a serious labour issue in packhouses which had expensive staffing costs and were finding it it difficult to employ staff.
Packhouse labour costs were expected to increase in the US as a result of President Donald Trump's policies to increase US manufacturing which was expected to require 40 per cent more staff and some states such as California were looking to increase the minimum wage, he said.
"These are major concerns for food producers and our technology can help remove some of them. Getting people to do the more mundane jobs is difficult and robotics will replace some jobs that people don't want to do."
While some jobs would be removed, better quality jobs would be created within the robotics and the horticulture industries. The US apple market was more than 10 times the size of the New Zealand industry, said Saunders, a member of the Rockit Global board.
He said the company had yet to finalise a commercial model but was leaning towards leasing the machines as it would save packhouses the capital outlay and provide them a fixed cost while labour and compliance costs increased.
Robotics Plus is also developing automated fruit pollination and harvesting technology and a self driven vehicle for orchards and was planning to develop the technology for other fruit. On top of the US market the company, based at Newnham Park Innovation Centre in Tauranga, is considering sending its packers to South America, Australia and Japan.
Saunders said he had to acknowledge the funding from different government agencies which had contributed $12 million to apple packing and other projects which was helping New Zealand lead agri-tech innovations.