NZ robot ‘to transform apple packing’

Robot can safely handle up to 120 fruit per minute

Recently formed food packaging manufacturer Global Pac Technologies is to distribute globally a robot apple picker from New Zealand agricultural robotics and automation company Robotics Plus.

Global Pac Technologies was formed in January 2018 as a joint venture between United States company Van Doren Sales and New Zealand-owned Jenkins Group.

Robotics Plus CEO Steve Saunders said the two companies between them had a presence in almost every fruit packing house in New Zealand, Australia and the US. “They share our vision for the future of pack house automation,” he said. “Together we aim to transform the global horticulture industry.”

According to Robotics Plus its apple packer identifies and places apples in their trays, and has the ability to safely handle up to 120 fruit per minute, the equivalent of two people.

Jenkins' general manager Jamie Lunam said apple pack houses already use automation extensively for sorting and grading, but the process of arranging apples in trays for export is still highly labour intensive. 

“Labour shortages are a major and growing concern in New Zealand and many other food producing countries,” he said. “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.”

Van Doren CEO, Brett Pittsinger said labour shortages were causing major headaches for pack houses in the United Sates.

The technology was developed initially by Massey University graduates, Dr Alistair Scarfe and Kyle Peterson. Robotics Plus provided the investment to enable Scarfe and Peterson to their first commercial prototypes in 2016.

Scarfe is now Robotics Plus’ chief technical officer. He said Robotics Plus had carried out the first commercial trials of the packer in the 2017 season.

“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 pack houses. As a result we now have huge demand from both markets, with production underway to fulfil the orders,” he said.

Robotics Plus said the apple packer was the first of a suite of horticulture automation technologies under development to address major issues in the horticulture industry caused by labour shortages and increasing consumer demand for fresh fruit.

The company says it 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.

The company recently secured investment from Yamaha Motor Co. (Japan).

 

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