And will picking platforms save the day?

I wasn’t able to get to the grand opening of Rockit Global’s new state-of-the-art facility in Hastings this week, but I hope to visit soon, if the invitation stands.

From what I read, this is a packhouse on steroids – digitally advanced, robotics galore, artificial intelligence (AI) enabled. All contributing to much greater processing and packaging efficiency.

I noted this media statement by Rockit Global CEO Mark O’Donnell, commenting on the company’s shipping this year of over 100 million apples: “By 2025, we’re expecting that figure to swell to over 400 million apples.”

Which led me to wonder – but what about picking all those apples? Haven’t we been told that 15% or so of Hawke’s Bay’s apples have been left rotting on the ground? No one to pick them. And Government looking stingy regarding future overseas workers.

So I sent off this inquiry:

“Would someone from Rockit care to comment how 4 times as many apples will get harvested on 2025 when HB lacks the labour to pick what’s currently grown?”

Here’s the answer I got, in its entirety, because I think it does represent an excellent example of forward thinking around a perplexing challenge all our growers (not just apples) face:

“This is a real challenge for everyone in our industry moving forward, and we are tackling this challenge both on our orchards and in our packhouse through the use of innovative technology and our diverse team of people. 

“On orchard, we’re using picking platforms which reduce the physical demands on pickers, lower the time it takes to pick, reduce apple bin movements and diversifies our labour pool. They also have self-steering options to maintain distances between rows and which again helps fill the labour gap.

“This season we had eight platforms which helped with picking about 10% of our crop. The platforms have opened up a new source of labour that potentially wouldn’t be available otherwise, and helped us utilise people who wouldn’t have been as successful picking from the ground using ladders.  

“Our new site, Te Ipu, also houses automated packing equipment that washes, dries and packs our apples into tubes, which can increase tube production from conventional manual loading tubes (six tubes per minute) to 20 tubes per minute using automated robotic arms. This minimises manual packing, reducing our reliance on finding staff for what have typically been harder roles to fill, and optimising workers’ time. 

“Longer term, our plan is to operate a much larger fleet of platforms and in a perfect world, the platform will replace the ladder – this investment will be in the millions. Going forward, we would like to see more workers from around New Zealand come and pick from our platforms, as well as, of course, the backpackers, when they can return. With automation in our packing facility we expect we will still need to grow our staffing numbers, but this will be supplemented with technology.”

All sounds very smart. 

However, I do worry about the last part – that innovative technology will ultimately add jobs, not replace them. New technology is all about efficiency and productivity – doing more with less. And these efficiencies must be achieved if our tiny (in the global marketplace, but extraordinarily valuable to NZ) pipfruit industry is to remain competitive.

If 300,000 more Rockit apples somehow – fewer ladders, more platforms, easier labour? – make it from the trees to the packhouse, maybe more workers inside the packhouse, paid more to do more skill-demanding tasks, will indeed be needed and available to get them out the door. A net job increase?

I hope so, and look forward to seeing the Rockit ‘labour balance sheet’ in 2025.

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  1. Great company, very innovative and productive. Proves the mantra of improving productivity first, and then production. However have one niggle, and that’s the plastic tubes. I’d like to hear what solution they have to that problem? If it’s 5 apples per tube, this year it’ll be 20 million tubes? That’s a huge amount of plastic.

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