New Zealand-developed robot making fruit packing easier than ever as labour shortage bites

The Aporo II fruit packing machine in action.
The robotic heads are more reliable than human packers, Global Pac Technologies said. Photo credit: Supplied / Global Pac Technologies

A new packing robot developed in Aotearoa lets fruit packing companies is said to automate labour intensive jobs and free up staff to redeploy scarce labour into areas that add more value. 

It comes as New Zealand fruit pickers are reportedly being offered up to $60 per hour along with a number of extra incentives due to the lack of pickers in the country.

The Aporo II intelligent fruit packing machine has been unveiled by Global Pac Technologies and builds on its first generation of the robot. 

The new model is twice as fast as the original, first produced in 2018. It can now pack 240 fruit per minute, saving between two and four people per double packing belt, the company said.

"Aporo II can be retrofitted across two packing belts instead of one, so it has effectively doubled the throughput and the labour saving that Aporo I could deliver," Cameron McInness said.

McInness is the director of Jenkins Group, an New Zealand-based company which co-founded Global Pac Technologies with the US-based company Van Doren Sales. 

Aporo II's dual robotic heads are more consistent and reliable than human packers, McInness said.

It's now being used in Aotearoa, Australia and further afield in the likes of the UK, US, Sweden and Belgium, primarily to pick apples and some stone fruits.

Work is underway to expand the use to other fruits, the company said.

"One of our Australian customers built a new packhouse and installed three of our Aporo IIs. That increased their packhouse production by 30-40 percent and reduced their labour by 50 percent," McInness said.

"Automating the process of placing fruit into trays then allows post-harvest operators to redeploy their scarce labour resources to areas where they can add more value."

 McInness said the Aporo robots were unique because they were designed for really simple autonomous packing.

"The machine is very intelligent. It looks at the fruit, orientates the fruit and doesn't need to be told what type of trays you're using - it just looks and finds the pockets," he said.

"Its internal vision system or 'neural network' is continuously learning to adapt to different fruit varieties and improve performance over time.

"Not only will it orient and place fruit the right way on the tray, you can also ask it to find the best colour on the apple and spin that side up."

The global apple market is worth approximately US$80 billion (NZ$116 billion).

Automation is the key to overcoming the worldwide labour shortage that all post-harvest operators are experiencing, McInness said.