The Future Of Automation: Q&A With John Van de Vegte, Vineland Research And Innovation Centre

Vineland Research and Innovation Centre's prototype packaging system
Vineland Research and Innovation Centre’s prototype packaging system

Right now, there are researchers at universities developing what may be the next step forward in greenhouse automation. What are they working on? John Van de Vegte of Vineland Research and Innovation Centre give us a look inside the technologies driving this research and predicts what processes are next to automate.

GG: What new developments in robotics and automation may have applications in horticulture or agriculture that we should be watching out for? How might these be used to automate the greenhouse?

Van de Vegte: I think the biggest thing robots or automation bring is control. Pneumatic stuff like cylinders and hydraulic cylinders — they’ve been around a long time and they’re going to continue to be around. But it’s what I do with them and how I’m able to control their function, how I’m able to make them go faster, that’s really where the development of faster computers and sensing systems bring the advantages. Growers operate grading machines for tomatoes, for example, at 20,000 plants per hour. That’s fast! You need to be able to deal with all that data quickly. I think you’re going to continue to see stuff that’s able to deal with the data that sensors generate — be that the size or color or whatever — to make it go faster or get that robot moving faster and to get the productivity gains that we need.

I think the cost of products is going to help. You can get a robot for $10,000 or $15,000. That includes all the software, all the controllers, all prebussed and done. It’s kind of like buying a toaster. You just take it out of the box and there you go. It wasn’t always like that. You used to have to do a lot of development after you take it out of the box.

3D printing certainly has helped us with the projects we’re running here. It allows me to try things out faster on the mechanical side. For parts with strange shapes, back in the day I would either have to design it in 3D and have it machined at high cost, or I would have to make a mold. Now I can just take the 3D model, push it to a 3D printer and it prints it out. The additional cost and time of up to weeks has now become hours. Although it’s not something you’re going to use on a final commercial machine, it allows you to get through the validation and qualification and trials much faster.

The other big thing I see on the greenhouse side is RFID. I think it’s really great for tracking product. It takes the bar code and goes way beyond in terms of the amount of data you can capture. I think that’s a direction we’re going to see more of, particularly as we track plants through their entire life, from inception all the way through to the retailer.

If I only have two temperature sensors in a whole greenhouse, I don’t really know the temperature of each of those plants in every corner of that greenhouse. You don’t really know what that plant is experiencing during its life. So more lower-cost sensing of the crop conditions is going to help.

GG: If growers have applications they need automated that don’t have a current solution, how do you suggest they work with companies, universities and others to develop new, innovative technology?

Van de Vegte: Certainly Vineland can help them with that. That’s what we’re here to do, is to look at the applications that are going to support greenhouse growers, field growers or anyone in the horticultural industry. A lot of that has to start with the growers understanding their processes and cost drivers today. There are good researchers at the different universities that can help. There are folks like us at Vineland in robotics and automation programs who are trying to develop those kinds of applications. But let’s develop it for the benefit of all the growers that are growing that particular crop or could conceivably take advantage of that technology.

If it has a 10-year payback, that’s a hard sell. If it hits the sweet spot, four to five years, there’s interest. Growers can see that if they can make this type of investment, they are going to end up saving money.

GG: Do you think the proliferation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs will help the future of the horticulture industry?

Van de Vegte: We have the whole robotics and automation program here and I’ve had co-op students out of the local colleges working with us. There’s definitely interest with them in horticulture careers. I’m not sure colleges are aware of the needs of the horticulture industry. It is an area that can be interesting to students because of the level of technology. It’s important to have that infeed of folks who are comfortable to run the automation of this industry. As more automation comes into horticulture, there will be more interest from the college students, engineers and engineering programs to look into horticulture as a viable place for them to build their career.

The other source is all the folks who used to work in the automotive industry, running production lines for all the companies that, unfortunately, aren’t here anymore. Those guys are still here. We just need to make the connections to show them that there’s a home for them here in the horticulture industry. We can use their 20 years of experience and expertise.

GG: How do you think the greenhouse industry will be automated in 30 years? What other applications will be automated and how? Go nuts – what are your wild and outrageous predictions?

Van de Vegte: I don’t think we’re going to get to the Jetsons. The financial piece is always going to drive automation. Some of the work that’s done in greenhouses is hard to automate, because there are lots of inputs and a high level of technology required to apply it. It’s also very difficult to justify an expenditure of equipment for something that growers are only using six weeks out of the year.

I think as we go over time, we start picking up the obvious projects in terms of where it makes sense to automate. As labor costs go up, which they inevitably will, then more bits and pieces become justifiable to automate.

I don’t foresee that you’re ever going to get to the point where you’re going to have greenhouses growing with nobody working in them. And I don’t think that’s where you want to get, because that takes away the grower’s expertise. That’s still an important part of growing anything.

I think being smart in terms of how we track crops going through the greenhouses is clearly an area that can be implemented. Obviously, materials handling, smart use of conveyors and taking away the mindless jobs as much as possible are certainly doable.

If you follow kaizen, taking a part from one spot and moving it to another spot, and not doing anything to the part, adds no value to that part. It’s just an expense. How can we eliminate that expense? Performing material handling with conveyors or other automation so people can be spending time on the operations where they are adding value to the product.

GG: In my research, I came across students who are using Arduinos to automate irrigation and track temperatures in hoop houses. Have you seen that at all, or are you working with Arduinos?

Van de Vegte: Arduinos are good tools for students to learn about how to develop those control structures and circut boards and so on. And also for preliminary, up-front feasibility work to see if an application can be done. That’s an easy way to do that kind of work as opposed to the more traditional approach, which would be to design your own circuit board. Normally, for commercially run equipment in a greenhouse, I probably wouldn’t go that approach. I would develop my own board or program a PLC or a PC.

GG: Other thoughts about the future?

Van de Vegte: I think we need to just keep moving forward to understand where the opportunites are. I like to think that everything is possible, it’s just a question of whether it makes sense to do it. We need to pick away at those things. I don’t know that the greenhouse of the future is going to be enormously different in the way it looks from the outside, perhaps. We still need the sun.

I think we need and we will get to a much higher level of awareness of what’s going on in those growing environments to control that better. Energy costs are going to continue to grow. We’ll just need to be smarter in terms of how we grow and control what we can.

I don’t know that I’m expecting a Jetsons future for the greenhouse, but I think we’re still in the early stages of what’s possible.

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