Robots will pack kiwifruit at Eastpack this season as part of a 12-month, $35 million investment plan across its business.
The company has commissioned an automation conversion on its largest 14 lane kiwifruit grader with three massive robots and a number of automated packing machines.
But expense could stand in the way of new technologies replacing thousands of seasonal workers despite an ongoing labour shortage. However other packhouse evolutions had become game changers as the industry continues to boom.
Chief executive Hamish Simson said in the last five years the company had pumped more than $155m into increased storage capacity at its sites and innovation including automation technology.
And that investment cycle was not complete for New Zealand's largest post-harvest provider.
"We still have quite a lot to do."
The growth was driven by escalating kiwifruit volumes bolstered by Zespri's record global operating revenues of $3.36 billion in 2019/20.
Simson said, for comparison, five years ago Eastpack packed about 25 million trays of kiwifruit and despite the challenges of the pandemic 42 million trays were processed this year and that number could climb to about 45 million trays in 2021.
"So to put it simply you need more infrastructure to handle the fruit. It's generally around grading, packing, cool chain and coolstore capacity."
He said Eastpack's philosophy was if you need to invest anyway "let's take the opportunity to innovate to invest in state of the art automation".
"A lot of things we are now bringing on stream did not exist five years ago. So things are moving quite fast."
The graders were becoming more sophisticated due to camera technology, which meant fewer people were needed to run them. Robots were also operating in the cool stores and controlled atmospheres had become the new norm.
Meanwhile, next year the grader at Washer Rd in Te Puke would take another leap forward with automation and robotics that would put fruit into boxes and onto pallets.
Unfortunately those types of robotics were "very expensive" and difficult because "often you are doing things for the first time".
Eastpack had taken a steady as you go approach but it would still require 3200 seasonal packers at the peak of the harvest next year and more than half of them would be Kiwis.
"The Bay of Plenty is a really healthy economy and is doing really well and unemployment is relatively low. So in the end you are wanting people to work for three months of the year and that is the problem and challenge we are experiencing alongside horticulture and viticulture."
The rollout of reducing the kiwifruit seasonal workforce further was there but the cost was huge, Simson said.
"Realistically, you know, you can't do it all overnight. Effectively for the automation technology for packing you are only using it for 12 weeks.
"So it's kind of hard to make it pay its way."
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said automation in the kiwifruit industry was seen as a potentially feasible solution to improve efficiencies and mitigate risks surrounding labour shortages.
"In the short to medium term, automation is most likely to be seen in the post-harvest sector, which is appropriate as this is where two-thirds of harvest labour is required."
Significant investment was being made by a number of post-harvest companies into automation and other innovation.
"Over the past few years, automation advancements in some facilities have enabled both an increase in productivity but also a reduction in labour needs. We expect this to continue over the coming years in line with the forecast increased supply of New Zealand kiwifruit."
Meanwhile, planning for the 2021 labour attraction strategy was currently under way and would be rolled out early next year before the main harvest starts in March.
Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said innovation and productivity improvements in our primary industries were really important for New Zealand.
"The kiwifruit industry, in particular, needs to invest in this area as labour supply will be very tight."
Zespri chief global supply officer Alastair Hulbert said the kiwifruit industry was well-known for its innovation.
"Investment like this will help enable the industry's continued growth, allowing us to provide jobs, support the regional economy and make even more positive contributions to our local communities in the years ahead. While automation is part of the ongoing innovation being considered within the post-harvest sector, the industry is continuing to work together to ensure we can attract and support new workers."