Kiwi company Jenkins Freshpac officially launch their hi-tech automated robotic apple packer into the New Zealand and international market this month.

Jenkins Freshpac Systems, a subsidiary of Jenkins Group Limited, have the licence to distribute the technology developed by Bay of Plenty company Robotics Plus in New Zealand.

In March the Hawke's 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 labour 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," said General Manager of Jenkins Freshpac Systems Jamie Lunam.

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"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."

Jenkins Group 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 utilised in other produce packing applications, has been widely anticipated after five machines were successfully trialed in Nelson last year.

"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," said Lunam.

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 US.

The commercial release of the robotic apple packer has been widely anticipated after machines were successfully trialed in Nelson last year. Photo / Supplied.
The commercial release of the robotic apple packer has been widely anticipated after machines were successfully trialed in Nelson last year. Photo / Supplied.

The US apple sector, which produces an estimated 4.7 million tonnes annually, is seen by Jenkins Group and Robotics Plus as a potentially huge market, with an estimated 70-plus packhouses in the US of sufficient scale to consider a robotic apple packer.

Van Doren Sales is headquartered in Washington State, which accounts for 66 percent of US apple production.

Jenkins Freshpac is focusing on developing the market in New Zealand, which currently produces approximately 574,000 tonnes of apples annually, with new plantings coming on every year.

Jenkins Group Director Cameron McInness said it has worked with Van Doren Sales for decades, and the US company is recognised as a global leader in supplying innovative post-harvest systems and solutions.

"We are committed to investing in international partnerships," he says. "And the growth of the apple sector in New Zealand has underpinned the decision to invest in working with Robotics Plus. Our customers are growing and, based on the labour shortages, they need to find another way to get their fruit out to market."

"To remain successful in business for as long as we have, you need to continuously look forward. We can see we need to invest and grow and partner with people who are innovative. It really stands out for us that this is the right time to invest in the robotic apple packer."