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Automation a mixed blessing for fruit sector

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Burgeoning crop volumes have prompted the horticultural sector to lift pay rates as it competes on a tight labour market. The shortage and the cost increases put automation and robotics under the spotlight to help ease labour pressures. Richard Rennie looks at whether robots will replace humans on orchards sooner than later.
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Nikki Johnson | March 15, 2021 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Last week’s announcement the kiwifruit sector would be paying a living wage of $22.10 an hour for packhouse work has the sector hoping higher wages will help fill a yawning labour shortage this year.

Filling that gap has only grown more challenging with the exponential growth in kiwifruit volumes over the past five years. The 23,000 workers estimated to be needed by 2027 are needed this year, and the 190 million trays expected to be achieved by then is now likely next season.

Further south the apple sector is grappling with similar issues, requiring at least 10,000 pickers and packhouse staff this season, drawing off locals, a national shared pool of 7000 Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) staff and any remaining backpackers.

Like kiwifruit, pay rates have taken a lift of up to 10%, but as late as February an incentive scheme had only drawn in 54 new people, despite including a $200 payment to help accommodation costs and a $1000 bonus for completing six weeks of work.

This is despite the potential to earn $300 a day, compared to the living wage of $177 a day of full-time employment.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson says the industry has been called on by the Government for some time to lift pay rates and the hope is this proves to help alleviate labour issues.

The apple sector has already acknowledged future growth in plantings could be stymied by a lack of staff for peak harvest.

Technology has been touted as part of the answer to dealing with these seasonal labour spikes, and NZ packhouses are already recognised as world leaders in tech adoption.

Technology including 3D camera imagery for fruit grading, automated high-speed packers and robotic pallet stackers often feature, but packhouse operators say the short-run nature of seasonal harvests makes getting a return on hi-tech capital items tough.

In the meantime, developers of technology are looking for more upfront capital to help the horticultural sector have its “rotary cowshed” step change in productivity.

Robotics Plus founder Steve Saunders says his company is running ahead of projections for its automated plant, something he puts down to some covid-prompted demand for technology.

Robotics Plus specialises in robotic apple packers and log load scanners, and has invested heavily into autonomous kiwifruit picking machine technology.

“But it comes down to when the pain point gets big enough as to when industry starts to invest,” Saunders said.

“If kiwifruit growers are getting reasonably good returns, that pain point’s not there yet.” 

Robotics Plus tech can provide a retro-fitted step up to higher productivity, with equipment that can be fitted into existing packhouse footprints, without major new structural builds needed.

But he cautions that growth in kiwifruit and apples is likely to continue if those returns and industry growth goals are there, and the labour supply to deal with that growth is proving very finite.

“And programmes to increase automation take time, the industry needs to start looking ahead five years now. It can’t just keep lobbying every year for more RSE workers alone as a solution,” he said.

Saunders also believes more of the “heavy lifting” investment to develop step-change technology needs to be made by the industry sector that benefits from it.

One large packhouse operator maintains there is still plenty of room for improvement of the human element, before tech takes over.

Trevelyan’s Pack & Cool processes about 10% of the country’s annual kiwifruit crop and 10% of avocados through its Te Puke operation. It is the largest single-site kiwifruit packing operation in New Zealand, spread across 20ha of campus.

Managing director James Trevelyan admits with the seasonal headache of procuring labour getting tougher each year, there is a temptation to jump into new technology to help alleviate the issues, particularly within centralised packhouse environments.

“But our challenge in this sector is that we pack for a short period of time, so the return on investment for large capex investment has always been a challenge, but yes, if the cost of labour goes up, the equation does start to change,” Trevelyan said.

Trevelyan’s have employed an industrial consultant with experience in car manufacture  who challenges the company to use “our heads before our money” when it comes to pushing more efficiency into peak seasonal tasks.

“He always says we must always tell him we have no human waste; then and only then look (should we look) at automation,” he said.

Late last year, the company ran a programme to expose wasted labour energy on both its avocado and kiwifruit lines.

“It definitely gave things a good tune-up,” he said.

Trevelyan says the exercise has resulted in some significant reallocation of tasks and staffing resources, and changes to how management approach task areas.

“We will run it again this year and at the end of the season take all the data and look at what we can do then,” he said.

A key focus has been to try and “flat line” packhouse labour operations and move away from the spikes that occur with SunGold and Green kiwifruit harvest weeks apart.

One relatively low-tech improvement to achieve this has been the installation of covered  environments at the load-in area.  

While not cheap at $800,000 a piece, the installations enable staff to tuck reserves of fruit away in an environment that will not compromise quality.

Staff can then return to that fruit for sorting in the three weeks before Green harvest peaks, after the SunGold harvest period has passed.

This outlay compares to an entirely new packhouse with technology fitted with a price ticket of at least $15 million, which only runs at 100% for three weeks of the year.

“With the stroke of a pen you can spend a lot and get it wrong. People have, including us, become involved in processes too early,” he said.


Sector called on to help lift tech

An investment by ACC through its Impact Investment Fund into Tauranga-based Robotics Plus may provide a model for the horticultural sector technology investment that delivers a three-way win for investors, growers and industry.

ACC has invested an undisclosed amount of between $2 million to $15m into Robotics Plus, drawn by that company’s robotic scaling machine (RSM). The machine is used to accurately measure timber volume on logging trucks, without staff having to clamber over the dangerous load.

ACC’s head of private markets Martin Goldfinch says the investment was a perfect fit given ACC’s goal to ensure workers stay healthy and safe, while also contributing to a financially sustainable scheme that benefits all New Zealanders. 

Log handling is a dangerous occupation, with 17,000 active claims costing $75m last year.

Robotics Plus owner Steve Saunders says the investment could provide a good example of how the horticultural sector may invest into technology to deliver that technology sooner. 

This would ease some of the financially demanding early-stage heavy lifting off innovative start-up companies.

“The RSM project with ACC is a great example of industry investing to help solve a pain point. It gives us confidence to advance the technology when we know the industry also has skin in the game,” he said.

His company has developed an autonomous kiwifruit picking robotic platform to proof-of-concept stage.  

This has more recently been adjusted to be an “autonomous platform”, capable of performing several orchard tasks, including picking, pruning and spraying.

“To go commercial, compared to the value of the industry, would be a relatively small commitment from the sector,” he said. 

“With the industry generating over $200m in SunGold licence fees, the $5m or so required for commercialisation is small, but the benefits would be significant to the entire industry.”

A machine capable of coming through and picking the ripest first-cut of fruit could be followed up with a human gang of pickers later, optimising the quality at harvest and slicing the surge of fruit a single wholesale pick generates by 50%.

Saunders cautions that if labour supply hits a wall the technology needed can’t be just bought off the shelf.

“Even if you look at a big company like Abundant Robotics in the United States, they have had to go through multiple capital raises and eight years to develop a robotic apple picking machine.”

Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman says the Government is in “cuckoo land” if it believes pushing labour costs up will simply prompt a jump to new technology that may not even exist.

“The tech that is there has already been integrated into many packhouses,” Chapman said.

He maintains RSE workers remain the foundation for the seasonal workforce for some time to come.

But he also acknowledged if more capital were put in earlier, there could be more automated technology.

“Steve is right, but the money the Government puts into R&D needs to be looked at,” he said.

He acknowledges the kiwifruit sector is currently making good returns, which may provide some surplus for tech development.

“But most other sectors, especially vegetables, are really struggling; there is not a lot of spare money around,” he said.

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