Automating the Packing Process: Tomatoes
Automating a broken manual process in an agricultural products scenario
The Manual Scenario:
A California farm that produces millions of pounds of tomatoes annually has done things the same way for decades. If there are problems, more people becomes the default answer. When does that model of doing business stop making sense?
Perhaps it already has.
The work is arduous and labor-intensive, requiring manual sorting by size and packing into the proper crates. Over time, labor becomes more expensive, less reliable and more prone to other issues. These and other issues could erode profitability and strain the entire production process.
Dealing with people: frustration can accumulate when dealing with manual packing. Given the mundane nature of the work, long breaks or sick days increased. Ergonomics also become an issue due to the repetitive-motion nature of the work. During harvest season, these issues cascade as volumes increase while employee shifts are limited.
How could this process be automated?
A more efficient means of processing should be pursued. A robot coupled with a camera system can automate tomato packing.
The ‘eyes’ of the robot, its vision camera system, locates tomatoes on an incoming conveyor line, allowing the robot to pick them up 12 at a time utilizing a customized vacuum tool. It sets them down as layers in the box. Then the robot picks a foam divider and sets it on top of the tomato layer. Once the box is filled with 3 layers of tomatoes, the outgoing conveyor indexes forward and brings in another empty box.
Although tomatoes are presorted, the vision camera identifies those that fall outside the predetermined size range (about 2%) and allows them to pass through the station.
- Since a robotic system can work continuously 24 hours a day with very little downtime, more shifts are possible, many low-value-add labor jobs are reduced. The need for breaks, phone calls, calls-in sick, and other distractions vanish.
- Output becomes more consistent. The robot picks and sorts tomatoes by a defined range of sizes, making loaded crates more uniform.
- Because of fast, precise positioning and tuning of the robot's vacuum tool, product damage is reduced.
This should reduce labor by two people per shift. Consider that manual picking throughput is approximately 2 boxes per minute. The robotic system functions continuously through 3 shifts to pack the tomatoes at the same rate with higher quality. Adding an additional robot to the system would increase the rate by 100% without incurring hardware costs, except for the robot itself.