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New technology pays off for Sunfruit Group

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

New Zealand first technology for packing out apples saw Sunfruit Group gain back a month in productivity results at its new $25million Pack and Cool operation in Hawke’s Bay.

Sunfruit’s new packhouse, the largest of its kind in New Zealand covering 12,500m2, opened in May for commissioning, a month after the official apple season started with the company’s Royal Gala apple harvest already in full harvest.

Sunfruit managing director John Altham said commissioning the plant while harvesting a record crop was a big ask, but to do this while also starting a month later put it to the ultimate test.

The plant has the capacity to pre-size and pack for market two million cartons (100,000 bins) with leading edge New Zealand-first technology featuring electronic sorting and rapid packing robotics from Holland company Greefa.

"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," he said.

"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.

"Gone are the days when I could walk on to the pack-house 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, developing and honing their skills in ways I never imagined when I was their age," he said.

"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 number one status for international competitiveness."

"To do this we need to be willing and ready to embrace change in the future of work - as jobs go, we create different and better ones, and it’s critical that we are preparing the future generation and our workforce with new skills.

Greefa senior project manager Frans Verkooijen, who along with a team of nine staff, spent time in New Zealand commissioning the plant, said being on site was a real benefit to the project’s overall success.

Already busy with other projects in New Zealand, Greefa is now looking to open a local branch to service its future customers even better, Mr Verkooijen said.

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.

With the key focus of its business being direct to supermarkets, under its PickMee! brand, the company is packing out more than a million apple cartons a year, supplying international markets including China, India, Thailand Europe, UK and US along with New Zealand’s Countdown supermarkets.

"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.

The Sunfruit Group and PickMee! brand has been growing, packing and marketing fruit for both export and local markets since early 1900’s and its first packhouse was built in Hamilton the 1940’s. Along with the new Pack and Cool operation in Hastings, 300ha of orchards and a large storage facility managed by John’s son Tim, Sunfruit is also the largest grower and exporter in Hamilton.

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