Food & Drink International - Fall 2017 - 19
The agricultural workforce is aging. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture in 2012 reported
the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57, and the share of farmers 65 years and older has increased from 14 percent in 1945 to
30 percent in 2007.
With an aging workforce and a shortage of younger people coming into the
industry, where do farmers turn? Robotics. "People don't want to work in
the fields anymore," says Bob Pitzer,
co-founder of Harvest CROO. "There
are not a lot of young people willing
to go out and do it."
During the United FreshTEC Conference in June, industry experts
came to Chicago to discuss how automation is becoming a viable alternative in field, packing and processing
applications. Soft Robotics Director
of Business Development Dan Harburg said during the conference that
its grippers and control systems, for
example, can manipulate items of
varying size, shape and weight with a
Because every product in the food
industry is different, Soft Robotics'
grippers are made for variability.
The robots learn, too. "The system
gets smarter and doesn't have to be
trained," Harburg added.
The human factor plays a role with
picking and packaging produce. "You
can show a ripe berry to someone and
everyone will pick different ones, but
a machine will pick the same quality
every time," Pitzer noted.
Strawberry fields are very labor
intensive and farmers struggle to not
only find workers, but keep up with
the cost of labor. "A field needs to be
picked every three days and about
40 times a season," Pitzer explained.
"Robots can pick berries at the opti-
mum time and during the cooler parts
of the day and night. GPS technology
can be used to track the highest yield
plant, as well as check for disease
In contrast, strawberry field laborers pick between six a.m. and noon,
so the berries are hot and rushed into
coolers. With automation, harvesters
can run for 20 hours during the day
and night, and berries come in at a
steady rate. This means farmers don't
have to cool them all at once and reduces energy usage.
Yamaha Motor Ventures and Laboratory Silicon Valley COO and General
Partner George Kellerman said there
are efficiencies to be gained with automation. "Robots can pick at night
and pick the same quality product
every time," he added. "With labor
costs, it's almost a matter of survival
for these industries."
Compac is the world leader in
complete turnkey sorting and packing solutions for the fresh produce
industry. The company built an automated line in a cherry packing facility
that would normally require 16 people, but required no laborers, CTO
Ken Moynihan said. "We introduced
the technology to the industry and
the whole industry changed in three
years," he added.
Compac's automation line is a value-added service because buyers
want quantity and consistency. The
company's clients can realize these
benefits from automation.
What's the one problem these companies continue to tackle today? Sanitation. Although equipment like Soft
Robtics' grippers are made of FDA
compatible materials for food handling applications, the industry says
there is still a long way to go in terms
of food safety and automation.
"It's very difficult and there's no
silver bullet," Moynihan said. "A
core focus of ours and the industry
is to make food that's clean and sanitized. It's an evolution the industry
will go through."
Moving forward, Harburg predicts
that the early adopters of robotics will begin to pull away from the
pack by 2020. "We are excited by
small experiments and other companies who have robotic engineers
on staff," he added. "By 2050, production will be done more indoors
as costs mount and there is a lot of
automation to come."
Automation reduces inconsistencies in picking and packaging <<
produce, which are the focus for buyers.
food & drink international * fall 2017 * www.fooddrink-magazine.com