An­gel in­vestors sought for ap­ple ro­bots

Nelson Mail - - LEISURE - TIM CRONSHAW

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.

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