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Automation - The way of the future

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kate de Lautour

Imagine a world where vineyard nets could be clipped by a robot, or apples could be picked, based on their taste, by machine.

 A mobile robotic platform aimed at increasing on-farm efficiency and reducing wastage in the horticulture industry may be in its trial stages, but the basis for the intelligence could mean a robot is helping out in vineyards and orchards here in Hawke’s Bay within five years.

The technology, designed by crown research institute Industrial Research Limited (IRL), is an extension of intelligence gained in the meat industry and while the first trials will focus on weed eradication and harvesting of crops including spring onions and asparagus, the aim is to spread into other horticultural sectors.

Speaking at the first of a series of Business Hawke’s Bay seminars led by Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI)  last week, IRL robotics research team leader Patrick Lim said automation had come of age.

“When we started automating the meat industry 20 years ago, the work was expensive but these days the returns on innovation are significant.”

Lim said the days of number eight wire mentality were gone, as the need for systems to work as productively as possible increased, and not necessarily mimicking the human method.

IRL’s on - going work with the meat industry has led to a number of automated systems including the world’s first automated pelt cut down forelegs. The Y-cutter allows nine lamb carcasses to be processed every minute using a swift downward movement, rather than mimicking the upwards technique used by human labour.

“It’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter,” Lim said.

To catch up with Australia, Lim said New Zealand’s manufacturing sector needed to grow, incorporating a higher skilled and higher paid workforce.

“Importing cheap labour from overseas is not the way of the future – there are way too many costs associated with this.”

Specialist dessert maker Trish Gibson from Hastings based company Country Culinaire engaged IRLs engineering innovation team to undertake a scoping study, supported by MSI funding, to focus on productivity improvements, which identified opportunities to reduce bottlenecks, improve throughput and reduce operating costs, especially labour.

“Everything is handmade here and it puts the costs up significantly,” Gibson says.

While an automated system is being progressed with IRL, productivity has already been increased with the introduction of an egg breaker, designed by IRL.

The need to work smarter has become more urgent for Gibson and her team, with an export order for Australia due to leave Hawke’s Bay in July.

“We are working on the first big order of 16 pallets for a Melbourne distributor now.”

Other IRL projects included work with the seafood industry to develop the world’s first fully automated half shell opening machine, allowing 30 mussels to be processed per minute.

Speaking at the seminar, Apollo Apples packhouse manager Michael Lynch explained how automation was making “enormous” differences to his company’s bottom line by improving overall efficiencies, reducing waste, increasing quality and obviously by increasing throughput.

Health and safety was also being improved with automation, including a machine to stack cartons rather than relying on man power for the heavy and often dangerous, lifting of apple cartons onto pallets.

Jenny Brown is the regional partner for MSI and links businesses into research and development funding throughout Hawke’s Bay.

MSI has up to 50 per cent of project funding available and can support the costs for businesses to work with experts like IRL to develop their ideas.

“Businesses need to have more than a germ of an idea,” Brown says.

“We need to understand how the business will increase revenue through development of new processes such as automation or through the development of new products.”

Hawke’s Bay has so far secured $2.3 million of MSI funding in 2011/12, spread across 45 companies from a broad cross section of  industries including engineering, food and beverage, horticulture and forestry.

The funding is not retrospective and Brown recommended that business owners contact MSI first, before embarking on any research and development projects.

“If a business wants to grow through innovation, then it’s very likely we can help.”

For information on Ministry of Science and Innovation funding please contact Jenny Brown

 06 833 8049
[email protected]