Reaping the harvest: automating New Zealand’s agricultural industry

Keeping New Zealand fruit export industry competitive on the global stage means finding ways of keeping post-harvest operations efficient. PACE looks at a robotic solution that pushes the envelope in bin filling technology.

The post-harvest sector, where agricultural produce is dealt with immediately following harvest, involves the cooling, cleaning, sorting and packing of crops. In New Zealand, there have been struggles within the industry to maintain increasing production targets while undergoing a decline in the number of skilled workers in the sector.

Post-harvest operations in New Zealand are geared towards improving productivity and efficiency, and it is these improvements that enable local companies to compete in overseas markets. Achieving productivity and efficiency gains, however, has become increasingly difficult due to the industrywide labour shortage.

According to Rob Elstone, co-founder of Hortworx, a new agritech company based in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, the shortage of skilled labour means there is an increasing need for automation in the post-harvest environment.

“In many pack houses in New Zealand, there is the constant struggle of needing to be able to grow 10-15 per cent per year in production while availability of staff is low. For this reason, there is no alternative but to increase automation in this sector,” Elstone told PACE.

“The downside, however, especially in the New Zealand market, is that there is not a lot of available cash to be spent on that automation, or if there is, people don’t want to spend it. It is a bit of a hard situation. I think New Zealand is a bit behind the curve on this.”

Elstone has extensive experience in the industry, having worked at Fruit Handling Systems, which subsequently merged into Compac Sorting. Later, he set up RBE Automation and Electrical, a company that provides automation solutions to industrial companies. The impetus behind Hortworx has been the provision of automaton products to the agricultural sector.

“I have been servicing and working in packhouses for the last six to seven years. Doing maintenance and service work in this area first-hand means I’ve been able see where things are going wrong and what is happening on the ground,” Elstone said.

The area that Elstone and Hortworx first set their sights on was bin filling. Bin fillers are critical in transporting fruit from harvest platforms or from pack houses to bins for export without damage. Elstone said that the catalyst for his machine was both bringing bin filling up to speed with the latest developments in automation technology and making the process simpler.

“Nobody has changed tech for a while. Many bin fillers are starting to get old, and they are quite rough with fruit. Where they are automated, they often have a lot of sensors and quite bulky motors. They are usually quite large, unwieldy machines,” Elstone said. “We therefore saw an opportunity to redesign the bin filler concept, bring it up to standard, and put some good up-to-date quality tech on it to make a nice simple machine.”

The result is Hortworx’s Robotic Bin Filler (RBF), which could prove to be a gamechanger in the space. The machine not only brings bin filling up to speed with advanced automation technologies. The RBF’s simple 24-volt DC power design makes it capable of working out in the field. The next stage will be integrating the machine with orchard operations.

“We are going to start putting them on orchard vehicles. This means that when they are picking out on the orchard, rather than having to go and empty the bag into a bin manually, you will be actually emptying it into a conveyer which conveys the fruit to the bin,” Elstone said.

In developing the RBF, Elstone needed electric actuators that integrated with the specially designed automation system. It was important that the machine was easy to control and scalable.

Elstone approached LINAK, a leading actuator specialist. Todd Lay, LINAK’s New Zealand sales engineer, explained that it was important that Hortworx was provided with an actuator solution that was specific to the needs of the RBF.

“Rob approached us at an industry trade show. He was specifically looking for LINAK Linear actuators. We helped to specify a solution based on his specific requirements. We looked at a number of different options and found something that could be optimised to suit his needs,” Lay said.

The RBF employs LINAK’s LA36 Linear Actuator. On each RBF, two of these actuators control the up and down and the side-to-side movement of the whole machine. Elstone explained that the features of the LA36 were perfectly suited to what he and his team were trying to achieve.

“One of the strengths of the LA36 Linear Actuator is that it is completely electronic – with a lot of actuators from other companies you have to provide your own fusing and your own control, and your own way of establishing of feedback and position. LINAK’s actuators fully incorporate provided power, and they are available with integrated controller options,” said Elstone.

“One of the strengths of LINAK’s LA36IC actuator is that it incorporates Integrated Control technology. With a lot of actuators from other companies you have to provide your own fusing and your own control, and your own way of establishing feedback and position. LINAK’s IC actuators fully incorporate all of these features and more,” said Elstone.

“The LA36 provides full analogue feedback of actual position and travel – and that aspect alone has allowed us to remove five sensors off the machine. It was the best actuator for what we needed.

“Also, the fact that it had to be 24-volt DC brought certain limitations. It is actually a bit of a speciality area, the low-voltage, high-thrust setup – and in this area, the LINAK range is very good.”

Elstone said that LINAK worked closely with him to determine which actuator model would work best with the RBF machine. “What we immediately found reassuring was their attitude. They were accepting of and interested in what we were doing. It’s not often like that,” said Elstone.

He said that LINAK were proactive in showing Hortworx the range they had available and how they worked, and sent product data, additional details, and samples for Elstone to assess.

“They were very forthcoming on helping me determine what would be best for my application and providing the data to ensure I could go over it and see how it would all work. At the end of the day, the quality of LINAK’s products is very high – I am very impressed with what we have been getting compared to what competitors were trying to offer in the same space. They will definitely be my go-to from now on.”

Lay explained that it was important for LINAK to be able to support its customers at the design level to ensure they get the right solution for their needs. “We have a range of products that can be tailored and we can provide a solution that is specific to our customers’ needs. This gives us a very strong position in the market to be able to support customers at the early stages of design,” he said.

“New Zealand has a relatively small population and there are a number of smaller companies that are very innovative and often grow to export products internationally. So it is important for us to support that innovation and ensure our local companies are at the cutting edge.”

As for Hortworx, Elstone is now focused on establishing broader distribution for the RBF and expanding product offerings in the agritech sector by concentrating on research and development.

“To me, that is where I want to be pushing – thinking about where we can provide support to the agricultural sector in the form of cutting-edge automation solutions.”