Angel investors sought for apple robots
ATauranga 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. 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.
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.’’
An automated apple packing machine in action.