Labour shortages? No problem thanks to robotics!
Did you know that the number one nightmare for greenhouse growers is labour shortages?
Have no fear! Because due to robots and the evolution of machine technologies, the labour gap is quickly closing and winning terrain in pack houses.
During the Canadian Greenhouse Conference Bus tour, Horti daily was invited to view the operations of Mucci Farms. Mucci Farms employs an advanced robotics system and vision technology in order to combat the crippling realisation of labour shortages within our industry. Consequently this technology has actually improved the quality of their product simultaneously.
Their production facility of 400 acres makes Mucci Farms one of the biggest greenhouse produce companies in Ontario, Canada. They grow a wide range of tomatoes, pepers, specialty vegetables, strawberries and leafy greens. They also grow three varieties of cucumber; English, Snacking and Mini. In order to maintain high quality and efficieny, high levels of labour are needed during the sorting and packing process. Realising this factor, Mucci Farms decided to automate a large part of their production and packing process.
Viscon was integral in the designing and engineering of an advanced robot to assist the farm in their cucumber packing line. The design includes four Viscon controlled robot appendages that are dedicated to eradicating time wastage and increasing quality of product delivery timing.
General Manager of Viscon North America, Arie Barendregt, clarified that the system utilises a “one touch” technology to touch the cucumbers. "What makes this system so efficient and special is the computer software programming that enables the robots to work at a really high speed. The machine is able to scan the quality and size of the cucumber and make a graded selection in the blink of an eye." More traditional packing methods, in the past, are seen to touch the product up to five times before they are placed in the final destination. With the Viscon system, cucumbers are touched once and placed into an special aluminium tray. The one touch solution is designed to minimise the “damage” to the product by gently touching and moving it.
The software that the machine runs on is able to pack three types of cucumber in the same cycle. “two lines make 8-count trays with quality A and another line simultaneously makes trays with 6-count B quality product. Or one line makes 6-count quality A, another one 8-count quality B and a third one 8-count quality A or vice versa” says HortiDaily. The robot can identify the differences between the cucumbers and knows exactly what to do at high speeds.
Barendreght further explained that although the investment costs are not low, companies over see a return on their investment after just a few years. "This machine is able to pack up to 90 trays per minute. Aside from all of the advantages in the quality of the selection process, the system replaces more than 25 workers who are normally required to grade and handle a similar amount of packs per hour. And good employees are hard to find, come with housing costs and have a less constant factor than a machine."
Moreover, Mucci farms explained that the robot enables them to work more efficiently and consistently. "The software is aware of the selection criteria for each individual customer of Mucci, so they can grade packs in a more client specific manner. This adds value to the product too, as you can now offer a perfect sorting that meets the customer's preferences."
Barendregt believes that there will be an increasing number of greenhouse growers who will invest in this kind of technology because of the time saving and ROI potentials. "Mucci was a pioneer with this system, we learned a lot during the engineering of this project. This experience can be translated into other projects and product categories. In the end, labor will only become more scarce and the industry will be forced to take advantage of this kind of innovative technologies."
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