Kiwi firm signs global deal for robotic apple packers

Each Robotics Plus apple packer can do the job of two people.

Robotics Plus, a New Zealand agricultural robotics and automation company, has signed an agency and distribution agreement with Global Pac Technologies.

This will see the company’s robotic apple packers go global. The deal will initially target US, Australian and New Zealand markets.

Global Pac Technologies is a joint venture between US company Van Doren Sales and New Zealand-owned Jenkins Group.

Robotics Plus CEO Steve Saunders says the two companies, Van Doren and Jenkins, have a presence in almost every packhouse in New Zealand, Australia and the US.

“We see enormous potential in our new relationship with Global Pac Technologies,” says Saunders, in a statement.

“Naturally their global packhouse relationships offer exciting opportunities for us to expand distribution of our apple packers to markets beyond New Zealand, but more importantly, they share our vision for the future of packhouse automation. Together we aim to transform the global horticulture industry.”

Jamie Lunam, Jenkins general manager, says apple packhouses 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,” says Lunam. “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 says the global apple industry has been packing apples the same way for decades.

“Labour shortages are now causing major headaches for packhouses in the United States,” he says. “It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm amongst packhouses when they see the potential of this technology.”

The Robotics Plus apple packer identifies and places apples in their trays, and has the ability to safely handle up to 120 fruits per minute. The company says this is equivalent to the work of two people.

The robotic apple packing technology was originally developed by Massey University graduates, Dr Alistair Scarfe and Kyle Peterson. Saunders saw the technology early on and agreed to provide investment that led them to build the first commercial prototypes in 2016.

Scarfe, who is now chief technology officer at Robotics Plus, carried out our first commercial trials of the packer last season and were delighted with the results.

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

The packers are the first in a line of horticulture automation technologies being developed by Robotics Plus. The technologies aim to address major issues in the horticulture industry caused by labour shortages and increasing consumer demand for fresh fruit.

Saunders says the investment from Yamaha Motor in Japan early this yearand the formalising of the relationship with Global Pac Technologies, mean Robotics Plus is in a period of accelerated growth, all of which has the benefit of attracting new talent to the company.

“There are some very clever young engineers coming out of New Zealand universities. We’ve found that if you show them the customer needs and give them the right equipment they can achieve amazing results.”

Jamie Lunam of Jenkins and Dr Alistair Scarfe of Robotics Plus

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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