A brand-new apple-packing factory in Hawke's Bay is reaping the benefits of multimillion-dollar technology, making light work of packing 120 million apples - as a new report says Hawke's Bay's horticulture industry is "booming".
Two months after opening a new $25 million pack and cool operation in Hastings, Sunfruit Group said it had regained a month in productivity terms, having packed 120 million apples so far this season with the aid of Dutch robotics.
Sunfruit's new packhouse is the largest of its kind in New Zealand covering 12,500sq m and opened in May for commissioning, a month after the official apple season started and with the company's Royal Gala apple harvest already in full swing.
Sunfruit managing director John Altham said commissioning the plant while harvesting a record crop was a big ask, and starting a month later put it to the ultimate test.
"It's certainly been a season to remember and celebrate. Everything came together, but as with anything new we had to work through teething problems, and there were definitely some long days and nights.
"The pressure was on. We're embracing an incredibly exciting time in our industry as new automation and robotics come on-stream. This is also seeing a transformational change from traditional lower-skilled labour to new higher-skilled permanent jobs and more rewarding work," he said.
The plant has the capacity to pre-size and pack for market 2 million cartons (100,000 bins) with leading-edge New Zealand-first technology featuring electronic sorting and rapid packing robotics from Holland company Greefa.
"Gone are the days when I could walk on to the packhouse floor with a spanner in my pocket ready to basically fix things when machines broke down. Now, we've got young bright members of our team eager to become technology experts, operating highly sophisticated plant."
The Hawke's Bay apple season is expected to see records tumble across the industry, with Sunfruit expecting to pack a million cartons (at 18kg each) over the year.
"We have a great future, New Zealand grows and exports the best apples in the world, and as an industry we must stay ahead of the game to retain our No 1 status for international competitiveness."
Sunfruit general manager Tim Altham said along with creating 50 new fulltime jobs, introducing "just in time" technology has future-proofed the Sunfruit Group for major productivity gains as the company's apple exports increase, with more than 250,000 new trees in ground.
"When we made the decision to invest in 'just in time' technology it represented a new era in packing fruit for New Zealand. It won't be long before we see more and more investment in this type of technology across the country's fruit growing regions."
Sunfruit's announcement comes hot on the heels of Turley and Co's latest half-yearly Commercial-Industrial Property Market Report, which said the region had undergone "a development boom" in recent years thanks to a strong economy.
"All of the region's main industries: forestry, farming, horticulture, wine, food and tourism are tracking well or booming," the report said.
In the industrial land sector, land supply was now very good.
"Hawke's Bay industrial land that remains land-banked is no longer a market constraint," report author Pat Turley said.
"One-hundred and eighty-one hectares of raw industrial land has been added to Hawke's Bay supply in 2018, enough for around 360 developments of 0.5 ha land each."
The $26m Whakatu Arterial Link roadway now under construction would elevate the importance and popularity of the Napier-Hastings centrally-located industrial and commercial hub of Whakatu, Turley said.
Complementing the Whakatu elevation was another 9.7 ha remaining to be developed at the Tomoana Food Hub, which already hosted "industrial heavyweights".