First robotic fruit packer could revolutionise packaging lines
Robotic applications in industry are ever increasing. It has gone from tech only seen on car production lines to now being utilised in even more general retail environments.
One company, Wootzano, has found a way to introduce it to fruit packing, an industry that, despite having global importance, has seen less change from the recent revolution in robotics.
Wootzano aims to increase productivity of these packaging lines through the use of robotics. Currently, most fruit packaging is done by humans. Yet a quick Google search will show you how chronic the labour shortage is in the sector of developed economies. These shortages combined with cost and even inefficiencies show why the sector was ripe for robotic intervention.
“At the moment, the plan is to keep adding more robots to fill in the extra space, but still have humans to be able to do some of the things that humans still do best, which is quality,” Wootzano Founder & CEO Dr. Atif Syed said.
Dubbing its ‘cobot’ device Avarai, the mechanical arm fills roughly the same space as a human worker and is currently aiming to assist the workers by being placed alongside them on the packing line rather than replace them entirely.
But increasing productivity can’t be approached with a heavy hand in an industry like fruit and veg handling, which deals with things from cucumbers and marrows all the way to table grapes. “One of the biggest issues with robotic manipulation is the ability for robots to be dexterous, whilst at the same time being faster,” Syed says
So, to obtain dexterity and to be able to ascertain the pressure and differentiate between what’s needed for each, Avarai uses three measurements.
One is through visual means, which it uses to detect the fruit as it sees them. “When it picks up a product like, let's say, a tomato, it's able to know exactly what the fruit is and how hard or soft the fringes are to make sure it doesn't lose grip of it or damage it. Our robots can do this in a fraction of a second and still accurately ascertain the weight of a product and know exactly what product it is.” Syed explains how this information, obtained via a LiDAR and stereo camera, then feeds into its own proprietary machine learning models for the convolutional neural networks (CNN).
This machine learning element of the device is necessary when dealing with fruit, as being an organic grown material means the products rarely come through in a uniform fashion. “We use CNN to allow that intuition of what that product looks like in its various forms,” Syed explains. This machine learning sometimes need 1,000’s of images to be able to understand the nuances of each situation. Yet Syed claims his model has in some cases been able to achieve this distinction for the robots with as little as five images. This means it has not only learned to differentiate between fruits, but even learned to differentiate between healthy and ‘diseased’ pieces of the same fruit.
This information is then finally executed by the company’s robotic arm and patented e-skin that will then pick up and place, or discard, the fruit into its proper package all while applying the right amount of pressure so it doesn’t fall or bruise the product. The arm works on a six-axis manipulator that can move up, down, forward, and backwards to position itself correctly above the produce. This carries the claw, which has pads attached to it which carries its patented e-skin. The e-skin is made of a multi-layered elastomer polymer that has seven billion nanowires to assist the piezoelectric and piezoresistive sensing capabilities. This means the e-skin has sensitivity levels akin even to human skin.
Whether due to innovative methods, being early adopters, or the sector being overlooked, Syed explains how Avarai is currently the only commercial robot in the world being used in a post-harvest industry. Its current use on a packing line has seen the cobots reduce labour requirements by ~40%, the company claim, and this reduction in labour costs means they can make some impressive claims about ROI – all of which feeds into Wootzano’s greater goal of ‘democratising robotics’.
Bringing bots to the masses
With many companies involved in the fruit packaging industry, costs are often a major hurdle for any innovation or robots being introduced into it. “I partially think this pervasive idea that robots are too expensive came from previous robotic companies in the field, specifically harvesting robots, as they were priced too high.” Yet harvesting and post-harvest robots are not the same. And so, neither are the associated costs. To realise its goal, Wootzano wants to highlight a couple of things.
“Our robot is exceptionally low cost, which when combined with the reduction in labour required when you start using it, means that some of our customers are getting a return on their investment in under a year. Which is pretty much unheard of, even if you take into account robots building cars at car manufacturing plants,” Syed says. “So, the cost is exceptionally low. And pretty much the same cost it takes to employ a human being. So, you don't have to be a massive supplier to massive retailers to actually use these robots. Even if you're a small volume producer, you can still get a robot and still use the robot to be able to automate that process."
This cost reduction is what the company believes will lead to the democratisation of robots as uptake increases. That in turn will theoretically lead to greater productivity, higher profits, and lower expenditure. With Wootzano currently working on an even newer version of the Avarai robot, it believes it will reduce labour requirements even further, with estimates of up to 60%.
Having already got a food packing customer who provide ~80% of the table grapes to retailers in Europe, it seems Wootzano’s Avarai robot is now trail-blazing the use of robotics in the fruit packing industry. With dexterity, affordability, and ROI being its selling point, and its labour reduction being evidenced in its customer use, it looks like an industry that has so long been shy of the robotics revolution, could soon see itself be at the forefront of its democratisation.