New forms of mechanization making their way into produce processing

Technology and innovation have always been key to farming. Lately, advanced robotics has been trickling into the industry and is becoming more of a factor in all areas of produce practices.

Outdoor farms have self-guided tractors and combines, and robots are also making things easier for produce shipping, storage and processing, with new innovations coming almost monthly.

Field-based robotics can pick apples from trees based on color and other attributes. Processing uses include portioning, fruit and vegetable processing and packing.

A lettuce head gets transported by a robotic arm and transporter robot. Photos: Iron Ox

What’s out there?

Pacepacker, a UK-based tech company, offers a number of robotic solutions for the produce industry, working as a robotic integrator, creating robotic solutions for incorporating pick and place/case loading and palletizing systems. They also specialize in bagging equipment.

For example, its robotic Shingle Tray Loader (STL) presents products in an upright manner and packs fresh form, fill and seal packs into retail crates, enabling 90 packs per minute and ensuring consistent presentation. The STL vertically packs everything from salad bags to chopped vegetables, stir fry mixes and noodles into produce trays.

David Jahn, co-owner of UK-based Brillopak, said the rising importance of branding and “value add” in fresh produce is providing a new focus on ensuring the quality and presentation of the product throughout the process. This puts more emphasis on packaging and presentation and also means frequent changes of packaging formats. Automation systems need to be able to handle these requirements, including putting on the correct stock keeping unit (SKU) codes for product identification.

“Contract packers in the UK are specifically having to contend with multiple SKUs and product changeovers, so semi-automated systems are proving popular as they put packhouses in greater control of line efficiency,” he said. “We build systems that pack products at very high speed whilst maintaining quality and presentation of the product in the case.”

Robotics are being integrated in all stages of produce production, from the farm to processing.

Iron Ox has developed automated indoor farms that are able to grow local produce 2.5 times cheaper than vertical farms, and even cheaper than an outdoor farm, with no pesticides, using 90 percent less water than the outdoor farm.

“We’ve created an automated greenhouse that grows fresh, local produce at accessible prices leveraging deep learning, robotics and computer vision,” said Brandon Alexander, Iron

Ox’s CEO and co-founder. “Greenhouses involve multiple touch points, like seeding, transplanting, harvesting and cleaning. We are using robotics and computer vision to recognize the plants and perform each of these tasks.”

He added that well-designed robotics are the perfect solution to the challenges of growing produce. For instance, at its greenhouse in San Carlos, California, it uses robots to carefully seed, water and care for each plant. Robotics and automation, he said, are one of the best ways to grow at a lower cost, and at scale.

“Fresh produce like lettuce or strawberries can be an especially labor-intensive and high maintenance,” he says. “It takes consistent, methodical care to yield healthy, disease- free plants. Automating the process allows more constant oversight and care, freeing up precious time for growers, and yielding healthy plants at a lower cost.”

Safety impact

Iron Ox’s robotic arm scans lettuce head for diseases.

The adoption of robotics has also helped in traceability and safety, with Jahn noting it can better manage and control data from farm to fork, which will have increasing importance to the economics for the fresh produce sector as a whole.

“Traceability is about understanding exactly where and how a product was farmed or grown, from the exact field, on which date, where it was packed on which machines and how and when it arrived at the shop,” he said. “This not only ensures that every element of the process is effectively managed, but also means that the data acquired through the process can be used to immediately track any health issues down to a local or batch issue.”

This can also have major implications for farming efficiency, he said, as the data can identify sales and yields of product by quality, sortation, date, field and weather at the time.

A fully automated system means humans don’t touch the produce from seed to store. Using sanitized robots to handle the produce can mitigate many of the health risks in crop production today – contaminants on produce that lead to illnesses are often the result of unwashed hands, or fecal matter tracked into the soil by boots.

“Also, diseases and pests like powdery mildew and aphids often live within the folds and crevices of the plant and go unnoticed by humans,” Alexander said. “Even the most qualified growers can’t look at every single plant as often as is necessary to keep plants healthy. Once afflicted, pestilence spreads exponentially and you can lose a huge portion of your crop quickly.”

Computer vision, capable of 3D imaging that sees all angles of the plant, can spot hidden early warning signs and help mitigate the contamination and spread of disease and pests.

Is it right for you?

Before processors invest in a robotic solution, they need to take the time to complete a risk management exercise and identify all the potential risks of what can go wrong with the chosen solution and the impact it would make on the process.

“Applying robotics to a case packing process may well make a sound business case, but it might not always be the optimum solution when there are multiple SKUs and numerous packs of different shapes and sizes to factor in,” Jahn said. “This comes back to really scoping out what you are trying to accomplish using automated systems, the causes of production bottlenecks and who is in control of your efficiency.”

For example, cranking up an automated machine can boost line throughput during a shift, increasing line speed from 35 to 60 packs a minute. However, this increased speed is pointless if 10 minutes or more every hour is lost through stoppages because people or machines further up the process cannot keep up. When there’s a bottleneck, the line stops. At the same time presentation quality suffers.

“Typically, the more consistently you pack at a lower speed, the more products you actually pack onto a pallet at the end of a shift,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is the true measure of packhouse efficiency.”

The big picture

The fresh produce sector is manually intensive and increasing labor costs cause a real hit to bottom line profits.

“Robots are able to replace much of this manual labor and work 24 hours a day if necessary without breaks, holidays, sickness or injury,” Jahn said. “They are also able to ensure consistency of throughput, quality and presentation over a shift improving line performance.”

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and at the current rate, most believe there won’t be enough food grown to sustain the population. When coupled with labor shortages in agriculture (and an aging generation of farmers), the food crisis looks very real.

“Robotics and automation mean we can grow more food on less land, cheaper, and using less resources than traditional outdoor farming,” Alexander said. “These innovations will be critical in producing the amount of food necessary to feed the planet.”

— Keith Loria, contributing writer

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