The company has acquired the license to distribute the technology developed by Bay of Plenty company Robotics Plus in New Zealand.
Its parent company, Jenkins Group Limited have also joined forces with US-based Van Doren Sales to sell the packer into the global market under a new joint venture GlobalPac Technologies.
The commercial release of the robotic apple packer which also has the ability to be utilized in other produce packing applications has been widely anticipated after five machines were successfully trialed in Nelson last year, according to a release.
Jenkins Group, who collaborated with Robotics Plus on the trial, is a 136-year-old family-owned New Zealand company with a strong presence throughout the fresh produce sector providing end-to-end packing and labeling solutions.
“We searched all over the world for innovative solutions for the increasing challenges our horticulture clients face – and we found the automated technology for apple growers right here in our own backyard,” says Jenkins Freshpac general manager Jamie Lunam.
In March this year, the Hawkes Bay apple industry was in crisis facing a shortage of 400 seasonal workers needed to pick more than 14 million cartons of apples.
The Ministry of Social Development declared a labor shortage in the region allowing overseas visitors with visitor permits to work on orchards and vineyards however they still struggled to fill positions.
“The robotic apple packer has been developed to help situations like these” say Lunam.
“There is a national labour shortage in the sector at the most critical stages of the season, and it’s going to get worse. We’re delivering a solution to the problem of ensuring New Zealand produce reaches key export and local markets”.
The apple packer, which identifies and places the apples in their trays, has the ability to safely handle up to 120 fruit per minute which is the equivalent of two people.
Three Robotics Plus apple packers have already been installed in commercial post-harvest operators in New Zealand and the U.S.
The U.S. apple sector, which produces an nearly 5 million metric tons (MT) annually, is seen by Jenkins Group and Robotics Plus as a potentially huge market, with an estimated 70-plus packhouses in the U.S. of sufficient scale to consider a robotic apple packer.
Van Doren Sales, Inc. is headquartered in Washington State, which accounts for 66% of US apple production.
However, Jenkins Freshpac is focusing on developing the market in New Zealand, which currently produces approximately 574,000MT of apples annually, with new plantings coming on every year.
Robotics Plus owner Steve Saunders says he and Dr Alistair Scarfe, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, have spent almost eight years developing a range of robotics products for the horticultural processing sector, and nurturing key talent.
“We’ve spent a lot of time testing our apple packer and are now comfortable in saying the technology is reliable and affordable and we can take it to the marketplace,” says Saunders.
“Its a logical fit for us to work with another local company that has a great reputation. This is another really great example of how the Bay of Plenty community can collaborate to take an innovative product to market.
“We’re also excited about working with Van Doren Sales to take the technology into the USA. Van Doren services a huge chunk of the American apple industry in terms of setting up post harvest operations and the partnership is a really great strategic fit for us.”