Robots are running the world's first fully-automated kiwifruit cool store in Te Puke.
EastPack invested $10 million into the Quarry Rd cool store which has two state-of-the-art robots - and was officially blessed by kaumatua, yesterday.
Chief executive Hamish Simson said it was a world first and others in the kiwifruit industry were keeping watch.
''We are very much pioneering it for the other people in the industry. They are looking because they are under the same pressure as us.''
He estimated the company would pack 38 million trays this season compared to 41 million last season and rapidly rising volumes meant it needed more storage space.
''Zespri gives you a loadout plan for nine months, and the market needs supply year round. By the time we have finished packing in about one week, we would have loaded out half of our kiwifruit and will store the other half.''
The cool store was divided into two rooms that could hold 4800 pallets or 1.2 million trays of kiwifruit on 14m-high towers.
One robot was stationed in each room and used artificial intelligence to run the place.
''The robot take the pallets. We don't tell it where to put it, but there are a set of rules like putting certain fruit types, and how long we want it stored then it decides.''
Simson said it would build another $10m cool store following the same blueprint next year ''and several cool stores the year after that''.
He said the concept was not about taking away people's jobs.
''The problem is we need a high number of seasonal staff for a small amount of time, and that is not to say we won't be employing the same numbers of people.''
''But if we look at the growth, we need more than 3000 seasonal people a year now, and in four years we will need another 2500. The question is, where are 6000 people going to come from?''
The challenge for EastPack was not about using fewer people but not needing more, he said.
''Our growth is putting a lot of strain on resources and people are our biggest and most important resource.''
MP for Bay of Plenty Todd Muller said ''here we have a peek into the future of the industry''.
''You have got world-class technology being applied ... the growth prospects in terms of volumes for this industry are eye-watering.''
''What this demonstrates to me is an industry where people can thrive and technology can be applied. It's not an either or, this industry has got thousands of jobs to be filled over the next five years and a tremendous opportunity to apply world-class technology.''
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said automation was one potential solution to the labour shortage.
''Different industry is investing into automation which reduces the number of employees needed, particularly around the labour intensive picking and packing. However, in order for automation to have a significant impact upon labour requirements, the industry will require significant capital investment as well as further innovation.''
Packhouse automation that affected labour requirements for packing and cooling was developing ahead of automation for picking where innovation was more complicated, she said.
''However, there is potential for significant development in both of these areas over the next decade.''