Greenhouse growers in Ontario, Canada are turning to automotive expertise to reduce labour costs.
The automotive industry is one of the largest economic players in Essex County, the most southern part of Ontario, Canada. The area is also home to the largest concentration of greenhouse vegetable in the country, however, and growers are increasingly turning to automotive-style automation to cut labour-related production costs.
Jeremy Atkinson is the co-owner of Southpoint Automation, a small business near the town of Leamington – Canada’s greenhouse epicenter – and one that, until recently, designed production equipment almost exclusively for mold shops and others in the automotive sector. At the behest of a greenhouse client, however, recent months has seen them designing a packing robot for cucumbers.
The machine in question operates using a trapdoor-and-weight conveyor system to determine size, then cameras to identify curve direction and the stem end of the product; uniformly packing the product using these latter 2 characteristics is particularly important for the greenhouse growers’ retail customers. One line can pack 36 cucumbers per minute, or 6 trays of 6.
Once the machine is up and running 1 person could run 3 to 4 machines. We’re aiming for a 2 to 3-year return
“The nuts and bolts of the machine are very similar to automotive technology”, says Atkinson. “Cucumber pack lines can run 50 people per shift. That’s a big cost. Once the machine is up and running 1 person could run 3 to 4 machines. We’re aiming for a 2 to 3-year return.”
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Atkinson and his colleagues are nearing completion of the packing line now, and plan to start trial runs in a “lower traffic area” within their customer’s greenhouse operation. Once all the kinks are worked out with this initial system, he adds, they should be able to custom build similar systems in about 10 weeks.
Atkinson says the decision to break away from the automotive sector and pursue more agricultural automation opportunities had to do, in large part, with an ever-increasing demand from growers to find long-term cost solutions to otherwise labour-intensive production. Despite this, he says there are currently only a few robot-based systems in the area – for packing lines anyway – and technical expertise is limited. This latter point is something he hopes Southpoint Automation can remedy.
However, the greatest challenge for Atkinson and his colleagues lies in product variability. Car parts are always uniform in size, weight, and shape. Cucumbers are not, and calibrating robots to account for that variability can be difficult.
Indeed, the variability barrier is also a substantial issue for other greenhouse robot innovators. For example, at the Vineland Research Centre – a prominent Ontario nonprofit research and innovation organization – researchers are developing a robotic planting system for hydronic tulip growers. The variability of tulip bulb size and the precision needed to stick those bulbs onto watering trays have proven to be challenging obstacles.
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Needless to say, the cost of any automated system is not low, and growers interested in such technology will have to dig deep into their pockets to access what are currently custom-built systems. But in a business landscape where utility and wage costs are, by most accounts, quite high, and the lack of available local labour is an endemic problem, ever-more attention is being paid to machine solutions.