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Hectre: A fresh approach for apple orchards

This article was published on Feb 19, 2021, 11:42 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

Artificial intelligence and apples. Probably not something most would think to combine. Hectre did. And now they’re taking on the world with digital tools that create efficiencies for growers and exporters alike.

What's in this article

    At a glance

    • Orchard management software company Hectre has developed a range of tools that digitise previously paper-based activities within orchards, helping create efficiencies and reduce waste.
    • With skilled engineers dealing with complex technologies hard to come by, Hectre has used a number of grants from Callaghan Innovation to help onboard numerous R&D-related employees.
    • With more than a third of apple growers in New Zealand using Hectre, the business set its sights on global markets, with inroads already made in the US.

    Callaghan Innovation has been a massive help to our business. By working with them, and AUT and Waikato universities, we’ve been able to find a lot of talent in the right areas to fuel our R&D pipeline. 

    - Luke Butters, R&D Manager, Hectre

    A New Zealand business forging a global reputation

    New Zealand’s apple industry has a global reputation for quality. But for orchard management software company, Hectre, sights are firmly set on The Big Apple.  

    Working in close collaboration with orchardists in New Zealand, Hectre has developed a range of tools that see previously paper-based activities within orchards now digitised, such as harvest management, timesheets and payroll.  

    And whilst they’re already used by more than a third of apple growers here, they’re increasingly finding favour in offshore markets, particularly in Washington and New York in the US.

    “They’re among the biggest apple-growing regions in the world,” says Hectre’s R&D Manager Luke Butters, “so they’ve been a great starting place for us as we pursue our vision to enter many markets around the world. We figured if we could succeed there, we could succeed anywhere.”

    Hectre's software allows growers to digitise paper-bound activities

    Key to helping Hectre stand out from competitors has been the development of a fruit-assessment tool called Spectre. After taking a simple photo of a fruit bin, Spectre gives users information on the fruit it contains, such as size and colour profiles, with 95 per cent accuracy.

    For an industry where margins can be slim and returns affected by unforeseen events, a tool like Spectre provides benefits across the supply chain, from growers and packhouses to exporters and marketers.

    “Some of the big US supermarket players have been known to turn away truckloads of fruit because it doesn’t meet their exact size and colour specifications, and that fruit will end up just being dumped,” explains Butters. “Trying to reduce that kind of waste, and build transparency and trust between operators is part of what we’re trying to do.”

    Picking the cream of the crop

    Hectre has always been a business that harnesses complex technology, the likes of machine learning and computer vision, with its vision to make it simple and empowering. But sourcing skilled engineers in these areas however, has provided its own set of challenges. 

    “When we started there weren’t many people out in the industry who had these skill sets. However, the universities were teaching these to their computer science students, and encouraging them to undertake Master’s and PhDs in these fields,” Butters says.

    In a bid to source talent, Hectre turned to different universities as well as Callaghan Innovation. Butters himself was the first example of this. While completing his Master’s, Butter’s undertook an internship supported by a Callaghan Innovation R&D Experience Grant before being supported into a role in the company through an R&D Career Grant. Himself permanent employee number 4 for the business, numerous other R&D staff have since onboarded after him through a similar process.

      “Callaghan Innovation has been a massive help to our business,” says Butters. “By working with them, and AUT and Waikato universities, we’ve been able to find a lot of talent in the right areas to fuel our R&D pipeline,” he says. 

    First stop The Big Apple, next stop the world

    Hectre has hit the ground running in the US. In its first year in use during the US apple harvest, Spectre scanned 60,000 apple bins. And feedback from that experience is helping inform the next phase of technology development. 

    “We now have a set of large US packhouses using the product, and they’ve been asking us ‘instead of taking a photo of each bin, could we get a video of the bins from the [open] top of the truck, so we can get a whole truckload of results at once?’ So that’s what we’re working on building now,” says Butters.

    “As a Kiwi it makes you feel proud to be in an environment where there’s so much innovation like that going on, and which is providing great opportunities for young engineers.”

    Ashna Khan, Callaghan Innovation’s Agritech Customer Manager says “Hectre gives growers an easy way to access data visualisations of real-time information through mobile tools, enabling them to improve productivity, reduce fruit loss and operate in a more sustainable way.”

    Spectre uses computer vision and AI to give users a more accurate understanding of fruit being picked

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