Despite the pandemic or perhaps because of it, domestic sales have been very strong this year for Australian automation company GP Graders.
"We had a number of sales for blueberry machinery, small tomato machinery and of course cherry machinery," explains Stuart Payne, Director of the company. "A big driver here has been our local support and a huge take up of our new vision grading system, gpVision."
Australia is facing a labour crisis in the horticulture sector with fewer people from overseas in the country, hence the increased demand for automated solutions.
"In the past customers wanted to reduce staff now they don’t even have access to staff to reduce, everyone is suffering from staff shortages due to the virus. The only staff remaining in the packing sheds are in the box filling, the packaging and palletising areas of the packing house."
Stuart said they are already receiving orders for machinery expansion and upgrades in the new year.
"Our latest product, gpVision, the hardware/software product that grades each piece of fruit, has really shone this year and has proven to result in the use of less sorting staff than any other system. Almost all customers have already, or are planning to upgrade their machinery with gpVision.
"The core of our business is to replace the human hand and the human eye with automation and vision technology. We have been inundated with enquiries from customers begging for solutions to operate without staff."
Stuart doesn't believe that the labour situation will be back to where it was for at least 2 years. Even when they are able, people will not travel to the extent they did in the past which will significantly affect the backpacker and foreign student supply.
Back at the start of the pandemic some of the overseas markets went quiet as they coped with repercussions of the virus but they have bounced back.
"Chile is really performing well for both cherry and blueberry machinery. For all of the machines running gpVision, it’s quite amazing how they’re outperforming other system in both volume throughput and quality of defect detection. The elimination of sorting staff has been a huge relief in a year like this. Our blueberry lines are running perfectly and we are only receiving praise for their productivity, their ease of use and ease to clean, their quality and the lack of staff required to run them. The AirJet blueberry lines have really been a standout performer.
"We have formally engaged our partner company in Europe, Milbor, based out of Warsaw which we are very excited about. They have exactly the right approach which is very service and support orientated. They will warehouse our parts in Europe for same day shipping and provide local technical support.
When asked about the pros and cons of not traveling Stuart said it was great for his family!
"For the business it’s caused us to be very focused on product development and allowed us to make big advances in software and vision technology. We have so many different projects which take a lot of focus so in that respect it’s been great. My country managers are exceptional so it’s giving them a lot more responsibility which they have risen to and have really excelled. I live in Melbourne, Australia so I’m not sure I’d want to be anywhere else right now."
Instead of exhibiting at tradeshows the company has done more virtual tours of working machinery and more site visits with customers.
Difficulties in servicing lines?
"Closing borders certainly made service difficult but now they are open we haven’t come up against any real problems. We are getting to the end of the cherry season and our service team have done a fantastic job and I’m sure our customers would say the same.
Best sellers in 2020
Software and vision upgrades and cherry machinery. GP Graders has also been busy replacing the old Ellips software with their more advanced system, gpVision.
New products for 2021
"We’ve released our simpler software interface which has been a big project. It’s a common complaint with customers that the software is just too hard to use, so we’ve taken that onboard and produced a really easy version of a very powerful product. It takes about 1 hour to learn and you’ll get expert results. Blueberry machinery will be a big seller next year, so too our small tomato machinery."