Acting Business Editor for the NZ Herald

Asparagus sorter inventor wins $4.1m in copyright fight

After ten years in development, the man who invested the world's first automatic asparagus grader has won a lengthy court battle with the people who copied part of his design to use for themselves.
After ten years in development, the man who invested the world's first automatic asparagus grader has won a lengthy court battle with the people who copied part of his design to use for themselves.

A Kiwi inventor who developed the world's first automatic asparagus sorting machine has won $4.1 million in damages from the businessmen and firms that copied one of its key parts.

Michael Schwarz, who now lives in Cambridge, built the world's first machine which could automatically grade asparagus spears.

Schwarz spent at least a decade developing the technology, known as the Oraka grader, when he and his wife grew asparagus commercially in Tirau during the 1980s.

At the time, asparagus was sorted by hand.

In the early 1990s, Schwarz approached Napier Tool & Die, which prepared drawings for a particular part of the grader and began manufacturing it for his company, Oraka Technologies.

In 2000, Schwarz suffered a heart attack and his two adult children came on to help with the business.

Under Schwarz's direction, a company run by his children was established called Oraka Graders, which has manufactured and sold the machine since 2001.

That same year, businessmen Paul Daynes and Gordon Robertson set up a rival company that competed with Schwarz and Oraka.

Napier Tool & Die also provided manufacturing services to that firm, called Geostel Vision.

Daynes had previously worked on the software used by the Oraka grader and Robertson had formerly been Schwarz's sales agent in Greece.

After years of litigation, the Court of Appeal in 2013 found that Daynes, Robertson, Geostel and Napier Tool & Die copied a key component of the Oraka Grader, called the tip cup assembly.

This caused serious damage to Oraka Graders' business.

Earlier this year, the case came back before the High Court for the question of damages.

The dispute was largely over whether Oraka Technologies (which holds the cup assembly copyright) could recover losses directly suffered by Oraka Grader, the company which was manufacturing and selling the machine at the time.

Daynes, Robertson and Geostel were unrepresented at the hearing.

Napier Tool & Die opposed damages - set by Justice Anne Hinton at $4.1 million - being awarded to Oraka Technologies and argued that company suffered no loss.

However, Justice Hinton decided Oraka Technologies had suffered loss in a ruling delivered earlier this month.

Oraka Technologies lost the opportunity to cause Oraka Graders to enter into contracts that would have generated a profit of $4.1 million for the latter firm, she said.

The judge found that Oraka Technologies had suffered loss of $4.1 million and awarded compensatory damages to it for that amount.

How the Oraka grader works, as described by the Court of Appeal:

• The Oraka grader is essentially a conveyor belt with a specialised cup assembly. The cups each receive an individual asparagus spear and carry it under a camera/illumination station at the rate of about 12 spears per second.

• The image of the individual spear is captured by a camera, processed by a computer and each spear is graded according to its length, colour and quality, depending on the demands of the market for which the crop is destined.

• When the asparagus spear reaches the designated collection chute for its grade, the cup assembly is electronically tripped to tip the cup.

• The spear falls into a collection chute where it is packaged with other spears of the programmed weight of spears into a chute specific to the grade.

• At the beginning of the grading process, a small header belt pushes the asparagus spear lengthwise into the cup.

* The tip of the spear faces away from the chute so that when the cup trips and inclines and the spear slides out, the butt end of the spear impacts on the chute door.

* When the computer registers that the right number of spears are in the chute, the chute door opens and an asparagus bunch slides down to the bottom half of the chute ready for bundling.

- NZ Herald

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