28 February 2024 | Int. Greenhouse Guide | GreenTech

GreenTech is shining a spotlight on the transitions happening in the world today. With numerous challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, and the need for more sustainable practices, the current food production systems are being greatly affected. In a series of articles, we will delve into the challenges and opportunities of these transitions in the horticulture industry. In this article we look at the different options to make labour in the greenhouse easier with relatively simple solutions and high-tech robots.

Working in horticulture is not always easy. Heavy and repetitive work in the greenhouse demands a lot from employees, for example while taking care of the crop and during harvest. Because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sufficient employees all over the world, smart solutions are required to get the large amount of work done at horticultural companies. Growers can use accessible solutions for this at a relatively low investment, but advanced robots are also increasingly entering horticulture. These high-tech solutions may not be suitable or accessible to every grower, but it looks like they will play an important role in ensuring a continued production of vegetables, flowers, and plants in the future.

High labour costs
Asesores en Invernaderos from Mexico represents more than 20 European companies and 1 from Mexico and is exclusive distributor for all their horticultural products in Mexico. It includes logistical solutions for mid and high-tech greenhouses, such as transport systems for crop work, harvest, transport, crop protection, crop rotation and handling systems. “In Mexico labour costs are high and there are less people available. Therefore, it is necessary to optimize the available resources”, says director Ricardo Martinez. “Automation can increase the production with the same amount of people or less, it offers an increase of the productivity, it decreases the damage of the products, and it takes care of the security and the conditions of the employees.”

Pipe rail trolleys have been an important product over the years when it comes to making work in the greenhouse faster and easier. Although the principle of the pipe rail trolley remained the same all these years, Martinez did see the product change and improve. “For sure the technology is the most important change factor, due to 20 or 30 years ago the electrical elements and structure had a lesser quality than today and the used materials were more heavy. Today growers can use more complex trolleys, made with reliable and durable materials, very good finishes, powder coating and electrochemical finishes. These smart solutions can help growers to achieve higher results at acceptable investments.”

Reduce failures
And, as Martinez believes, there is even more development possible when it comes to these trolleys. “We continue developing trolleys with even more benefits and efficiency, and with driving systems with less power consumption or even with green power technologies and minor environmental impact. By continuing to develop the product, we can help growers reduce the possibility of failures inside the greenhouse and improve their business.” All technologies require an investment, says Martinez. “But the advantage of investing in these kinds of solutions is that they have a really fast return of investment. That makes these products more interesting for a lot of growers in Mexico than, for example, more expensive robots. I believe that ombining quality and service at the best price helps a lot of growers to improve their results in a responsible way.”

Digital employees
Yet the demand for robotic solutions is also increasing in countries where high-tech horticulture is the standard and the investment in robots is easier to recoup. One of the companies that develops advanced horticultural robots and actually introduced them on the market is Gearbox. The company from the Netherlands supplies the ‘digital employees of the future’ to growers, breeders, and traders. “Our Digital Inspector, Cultivation Advisor and Harvest Assistant provide support in the daily activities of the company through smart cameras and software with machine learning. They assess and report in real time on quality and growth development, in order to optimize the cultivation and packaging process, save costs and increase product quality,” says CEO Simone Keijzer. “The use of these employees already makes data-driven cultivation possible, making daily work with organic products in a dynamic environment much smarter, simpler and more user-friendly.”

One of the products that is already used by several growers is the GearStation. The GearStation ensures a 100 percent in-line quality inspection of the work performed by people and machines. Using the latest camera techniques and artificial intelligence (AI), it is prevented that the wrong product ends up at the customer immediately after the harvesting and processing operation. “You determine the quality standard for this assessment yourself via the user-friendly operating interface. Each quality phenomenon can be set separately. The extensive reporting dashboard allows real-time monitoring of quality per phenomenon, batch, and supplier. This provides factual and objective input for training and improving employees, assessing suppliers, but also early detection of disease and pests,” says Keijzer. “With the GearStation we assess packaged vegetables, fruit, and flowers on scale, in the punnet, in the box, a crate or bucket and the GearStation can also be used to assess cleaned empty fust. This includes tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and various types of fruit, but also cut flowers.”

Burden of proof
Keijzer sees a number of challenges in horticulture for which robotisation can provide a solution: labour savings, quality control and reducing claims. “It is difficult to fill positions such as quality controller these days. A machine can take over the work. But also, every company wants to check the product on other criteria. With a robot the user can set the parameters himself. And because you can carry out 100 percent quality control with a robot, you now also have the burden of proof in the event of claims by customers.” The experiences at horticultural companies are positive, Keijzer concludes. “The users of the machines are positive, see the benefits and also experience those benefits in terms of labour savings and quality control.”

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