The Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario is working on three projects to develop automation robotics for the greenhouse production process. Vineland is reaching outside the industry for input on these projects, partnering with engineers in the automotive industry to gain insights into cutting-edge automation. Vineland’s Project Manager for Robotics John Van de Vegte is leading the three automation projects, which focus on reducing costs and improving quality in planting, harvesting and packaging.
“We’re all challenged with the increasing cost of labor and fuel,” says Van de Vegte. “In order to be competitive, we have to find ways to innovate in that area. The program I’m running is tying automation into the horticulture industry.”
Planting, Harvesting And Packaging
Project One: Planting automation. Consolidating the separate tasks and requirements of seedling plug and tulip bulb replanting in one system, this machine will handle seedling plugs of multiple sizes, from small plugs to seedlings out of 4-inch pots. The same robotic structure is used to plant several different types of inputs. Scroll down to see video of this planting module at work.
“One of the challenges of introducing automation into the horticulture industry is that growers have different needs for automation at different points in the year,” Van de Vegte says. “A focus has been on building a flexible modular system that has multiple uses throughout the year.”
The system can replace as many as 16 to 18 people, requiring only a machine operator and maybe one person to load the machine. The goal is to make this flexible machine affordable to small- to medium-sized growers.
Project two: The harvesting machine. This automation is being tested with harvesting mushrooms, which is a very intensive, manual process. A robotic camera will look at the bed of mushrooms, determine which are ready for harvest, and then harvest them.
Project three: The packaging project. Imagine a machine that can apply a mylar sheet and ribbon around 4- to 6-inch pots, attach a barcode and then perform sleeving and boxing. Vineland is working on it. Labels are printed as pots move through the system, eliminating the need to pre-print labels.
Prototype systems for all three projects are being built right now. When they’re complete, a discovery and testing phase will take place and will eventually move to commercial production models. Vineland hopes to have the machines available in late 2013 or early 2014.
The Tech Experts Behind The Projects
Technical experts and growers are all part of the team helping to pull together these automation projects. Vineland is working with commercial manufacturers of automated equipment in industries outside horticulture, including the automotive industry.
“We’ve been able to take the technologies that have been proven in the automotive industry and refocus them into horticulture,” Van de Vegte says. “We have a combination of custom automation integrators and some who are focused on vision applications. There needs to be strong technology in that area because every tulip bulb or mushroom is different. It’s not like picking up a bolt and putting it into a car where every one is the same. We’re lucky to have a strong partner on the vision application.“
Vineland is also working closely with a robot manufacturer, a local university’s mechanical engineering technology program and several commercial growers. Pioneer Flower Farm and Sunrise Greenhouses are two of the grower partners.
What’s next after these three projects? Van de Vegte says that depends heavily on the amount of support the not-for-profit Vineland receives in the future. “Projects like this need support from greenhouses and partners who are willing to invest their time and resources to move forward,” he says. “To keep this moving, the horticulture and agriculture industries have to become a part of this movement forward.”