Cutting the dead wood

Canterbury researchers have recently announced plans tobuild a robot that prunes grape vines. With unemployment currently at highlevels any innovation that saves labour is likely to be met with somescepticism.   But we need to look beyond our current circumstances. Innovation improvesproductivity and competitiveness which drives economic growth, which in turn fuelsimprovements in living standards.   The Canterbury project is an outstandingmodel of how to bridge the divide between industry needs and academic researchand become more productive and therefore more competitive.  

The robot is being developed by a group of scientists at Canterbury and Lincoln University.   It will move at walking pace down vineyard rowspruning and tidying up as it goes.     It will be able to recognise plantfeatures and synchronise multiple cameras and high-speed robot arm pruners. Notonly will it cut out the laborious chore of pruning but will achieve a higherquality than a manual pruner by pruning consistently and accurately whilerecognising disease and age of vines.

The new invention will considerably improve productivity inthe viticulture sector by reducing the cost of pruning vines by $27million annuallyand improving the quality of pruning.   It will help build on the strongproductivity growth achieved by agriculture in an economy which has beencharacterised by low productivity growth.   It has been such innovations thathave helped the New Zealand agricultural sector shine as a productivityleader.   Over the past 30 years the agricultural sector has achieved averageproductivity growth of 3.4%pa compared with an average of 1.1% among industriesfor which productivity is measurable (see chart).  

By replacing manual pruning the robot will ease theviticulture industry’s reliance on an unreliable source of unskilled labour andwill provide the sector with a guarantee that pruning will be done in the verybrief seasonal window each year.   Job losses in today’s economy may not soundattractive but by the time the robot is ready for full production we are likelyto be back in the thick of skill and labour shortages. A shortage of lowskilled labour has been the bane of the sector with too few Kiwis willing to dounskilled agricultural work and the government for a long time reluctant to letin unskilled foreigners. Shortages will become an increasingly permanentfeature of our labour market as our workforce ages. Technology that alleviatesthese shortages and that contributes to the creation of new higher skilledpositions in the manufacture of high tech products will be welcome.

Not only will the new product improve productivity amonggrape growers it will contribute to New Zealand’s growing export market intechnology associated with agriculture. The new product will be in commercialproduction in four years time and will be exported to other grape producingcountries.   It will be manufactured in New Zealand and its developers forecast thatit will earn over $200 million per annum in export earnings within 10 years ofentry into the market.   It makes sense to leverage off what we do best,agriculture, and produce high value added niche products.

Innovation is often a response to a business need to becomemore productive and more competitive. In this case, the universities respondedto a need expressed by the viticulture industry with government coming to theparty with a research and development grant of nearly $3 million from the Foundationfor Research, Science and Technology. And research in New Zealand shows that it is this type of innovation rather than public sector leadinnovation that leads to significantly improved productivity.

With initiatives such as this it may come as a surprise that New Zealand ranks poorly on world innovation charts. Despite all the talk of kiwiingenuity the World Economic Forum ranks New Zealand 27th in theworld for innovation as measured by patents and spending on research anddevelopment.   This is the fourth lowest ranking for any advanced economy.   Theorganisation identified the lack of innovation as one of the key weaknesses inthe New Zealand economy despite the high quality of our scientific researchinstitutions which rank high on the international chart.

The pruning robot project demonstrates how business,academia and government can work together.   To succeed locally and competeglobally our companies must find new ways to increase productivity throughinnovation, but creating an environment where innovative thinking can be supportedand thrive is the greatest challenge.   There is no single, best method forconverting ideas, knowledge and research into market competitive goods andservices but this endeavour in Canterbury shows how it can be achieved.




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