Hastings Leader - 2021-06-09


High-tech packhouse


Louise Gould

Lasers, robotic arms, and artificial intelligence: This new Hastings building might be a packhouse, but not as you know it. Rockit Global Limited unveiled their new facility last Tuesday — a 21,000 square metre packhouse in Irongate, where artificial intelligence plays a major role in ensuring efficient sorting, packing and storage. Rockit Global chief executive Mark O’Donnell said using robotics to pack the PremA96 miniature apple variety has significantly grown capacity. “I’m inspired by what people have brought to life that weren’t even in existence two years ago, it’s amazing to see,” he said. He estimated that more than 100 million apples will be packed out of the new HQ this year, which has been gifted the name Te Ipu by local iwi Nga¯ ti Kahungunu — meaning the food bowl. By 2025, they’re expecting that figure to grow to over 400 million packed in their signature Rockit apple tubes — almost like a tennis ball tube for apples — and said they are already in talks to further expand their brand new facility in Hastings. In the new packhouse, the apples are washed and dried automatically before a specialised conveyor scans the fruit, determining size and colour and checking for abnormalities. Their software can also sort the apples into manual or automated packing lines. Board member Steve Saunders said the company already has more than 500ha of Rockit apples planted in Hawke’s Bay. “We also have more significant plantings planned in the coming years, and in addition there are over 200ha developed globally for counter-seasonal and provenances supply,” he said. O’Donnell said even though the new robots and use of AI has helped reduce their reliance on finding staff for what has “typically been harder roles to fill”, but with their further expansion plans many jobs are still needing to be filled at their Hawke’s Bay HQ. “There are lots of other roles within the packhouse and more technical and senior roles will develop,” he said. “We need more people, we need more people today.” Chairman John Loughlin said Te Ipu will remain the home for the internationally recognised brand at the unveiling of their new industry leading packhouse on Tuesday afternoon, where hundreds of people gathered as the building was blessed. “We were founded here, we’ve matured here, and we belong here,” Loughlin said. Rocket Global’s new branding was also revealed at the official opening. Global marketing general manager Julian Smith said the new logo and colour palette will help to widen its overseas appeal. The new logo, packaging and design will be rolled out globally from July 1. O’Donnell said the company are laser focused on the future with a number of ambitious projects. . “There’s a suite of new on-orchard technology to fully roll out, new countries to access, hundreds of hectares of plantings to facilitate, as well as further expansion of Te Ipu, earmarked for 2023.”


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