Robotics in the fruit and veg sector: From a little seed to the store shelf

You might expect to see robots in the electronics industry or on an automotive factory's assembly line. Not at a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. Yet, this market is becoming increasingly attractive to robotics manufacturers and suppliers. Robots may become an alternative, especially now that the labor market is growing more and more difficult.

High standards
“Our interest in the fruit and vegetable industry is not a recent one,” says Haayo Terpstra. He is the Robotics Business Development Manager at ABB. “This sector is, however, challenging for us as a business. This is because of its diversity and the high standards set by clients."

"The automotive industry, for example, is a large robotics buyer. Here, the robots will always be found in an assembly plant. In the fruit and vegetable sector, these robots will be placed in various environments - on the farmer’s land, or maybe in a wholesaler’s distribution center (DC). The sector also works with fragile products, and hygiene is of the utmost importance for the sector. We will then also have to tailor our products to meet these needs.”

“We have seen demand from the sector growing, and working with the client is, therefore, essential. We listen to the fruit and vegetable industry’s needs and wishes, and, from these, we adapt our robots. In this way, we develop new applications and products. Although the demand is on the rise throughout the chain, we are still at the beginning of these developments.”

“In some places, these advancements are moving faster than in others. For example, this year, we have already installed several robots at a processed fruit and vegetable packing plant. These have been placed not only in the DC, where our robots put the crates on the correct pallets to be sent out to the supermarkets. We have also placed them in the processing phase, where a robot puts the iceberg on the line, to be cored and sliced. We did this with a modified IRB 360 delta robot made of stainless steel so as to meet the hygiene requirements. Hygiene is an important factor that we have to pay attention to if we want to make our devices available to the fruit and vegetable sector.”

Quality guarantee
Hygiene is, however, not the only requirement the sector demands. The question is, for example, how products’ quality can be guaranteed in an entirely automated set-up? “This is indeed still a topic of discussion, says Haayo. “Because automation must not be allowed to lead to an inferior quality product. Many products are still being checked for defects by hand. Moving forward, it will also be critical that our robots not damage products like bell peppers on the line.” Automated solutions, such as optical sorters, are already available. “Here, cooperation is important to automate a production line to its fullest.”

Man and machine
The automation of the fruit and vegetable sector is still in its infancy, says the Business Development Manager. “We still have to deal with many challenges such as quality guarantees and the robots handling of raw products. On the other hand, automation can ensure a constant level of quality control. When the products are checked manually, each controller has their own set of standards. One will work differently with the products than the other. Machines all use the same standard.”

The most important reason why there is a demand for automation from this sector is the difficult labor market. “I think this is the most significant motivation behind looking at automation, and, as a company, you want to be able to provide a solution to this problem. More and more businesses are, after all, finding it difficult to find staff. For some, this is even becoming a full-time job. At the moment, this fruit and vegetable sector is not familiar with automation - everything is new. In the future, this will surely change,” Haayo concludes.

From industrial spray painters to cake bakers, from furniture manufacturers to the pharmaceutical industry - these are just a few of the sectors Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) can supply with robots. This Swiss/Swedish multinational is active in 100 different countries and offers various solutions to the market. The fruit and vegetable sector is a market that is not yet used to robots and automation. ABB is, however, looking at where its products can be of use in this industry. The company is also busy developing robots that are modified to meet this sector’s needs. 

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