Tuesday, April 23, 2024

E-Bin to the rescue amid kiwifruit industry’s labour crisis

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Among many other innovations and agritech solutions found in the Fieldays 2022 Innovation Hub, one that stands out is Waikato University’s practical and affordable solution to the kiwifruit industry’s labour crisis.
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During the covid-19 lockdowns the kiwifruit industry dealt with a critical labour shortage, resulting in fruit being picked out of the optimum times, subsequently leading to lower-quality fruit and a loss of premiums. 

This then led Zespri to approach Waikato University to develop an affordable solution for contractors and growers, and after several brainstorming sessions, the e-Bin was born. 

The e-Bin is an automated bin on wheels, which moves in line with the person picking the fruit, providing a funnel-like soft landing for the fruit which funnels down into the bins. 

Nick Pickering from the School of Engineering told us the basis of the invention stemmed from understanding what humans are good at, and what they struggle with during physical jobs like harvesting fruit. 

“One of the key things we found is that there are some really physical jobs involved in picking, so you’ll be carrying a bag around your shoulders all day between 20 and 30 kg, and that isn’t suitable for a lot of people,” Pickering said.

“So even though there is a huge labour shortage, there’s also a lot of people in the regions that want to work but don’t have the physicality to do that sort of job. 

“So what we did is analyse what humans are good at, which is fine motor skills, and what humans are not so good at, which is the heavy lifting, and we married the two together.”

Waikato University School of Engineering lecturer Nick Pickering (left) and engineering masters student Graeme Chubb with the e-Bin on show at the 2022 Mystery Creek Fieldays.

Although there is technology out there capable of fine motor skill tasks like picking fruit without causing damage, this can be very expensive and is often not financially viable for the majority of growers and contractors. 

Pickering says another important factor in ensuring the technology will be affordable for growers and contractors was the interchangeability of the expensive parts of the system. 

“So one of the challenges in horticulture, mainly with seasonal crops like kiwifruit, is harvesting may only go for a few months so often people struggle to invest in the hardware to be able to support it. 

“So what we’re doing is building a modular system, where the electronics and the brains of the system can be replaced by a farmer or an orchard worker in the field. 

“The technology might be used for harvesting kiwifruit for part of the season, then there might be other parts of the season where it’s used for strawberry picking, or berries. 

“So this means there will be interchangeability of the expensive bits, so the sensors, the batteries and the brains of the robot, so we can get that utilisation up and make it easier to support, more available and therefore more financially viable for different farming systems.”

He believes the e-Bin will be in a similar price range to the trailers most orchards and contractors are already using, meaning it won’t be unfamiliar pricing. 

And if upcoming trials are successful, the technology will be ready for use in the next two to four years.