September 13, 2013      

Reiter Affiliated Companies
Driscoll?s Best Berry Solution
Salinas, CA

The robotics world has correctly identified agriculture as a premier market for introducing the robotic industries intellectual capacity.

In 2010, California?s agricultural economy exceeded $36B and generated over $100B in economic activity. The industry serves as a bell weather for issues such as immigration, the trade deficit, global warming, minimum wage, unemployment and resource management of land and water.

Even with these challenges California agriculture has steadily grown in value and scale while other industry has shrunk or moved offshore.

US Farming has historically advanced with the aid of large, flexible powered tractors designed to fit and service a variety of tools. Field activities not serviced by tractors have either been left to specialized machines and manual labor.

The great targets for robotic innovating

Today?s California agriculture has become more diverse and dependent on labor than ever before. Midwest wheat and corn farmers are farming one thousand acres per man while specialty crops in California such as berries are utilizing 1.5 to 2 men and women per acre to farm.

Most of the tasks performed by people are highly skilled tactile ones that utilize rapid decision making. People discern quality and condition of the product, orientation of the material. They grasp and manipulate (either pick or cut) the product without damaging it, and then package it for presentation in a market.

Lettuce, apples, grapes and berries require hundreds of thousands of people, state and nationwide. These and other specialty crops, where competition from the John Deere and other major players is lower and human dependence is highest, are great targets for robotic innovating.

In these fields humans perform thousands of repeated tasks both simple and complicated in a generally small geographic service area.

strawberry harvest japan

As a result of the historical dependence on labor, much of the agriculture community?s production leadership has advanced through the ranks and built its organizations around their capacity to manage human capital.

This is a distinct difference from industry where technological aptitude carries an equal value to the ability to manage people.

As a whole, the agricultural industry?s mechanical and automation skillsets are at fractional levels of sophistication compared to industrial levels.

An additional challenge is the absence of technical support services to install, maintain, manage and develop tools compared to our factories. This has resulted in many companies focusing on growth for returns better understood than technical advancement to reduce labor needs and costs.

Robotics manufacturers should remain aware that the Ag industry will need to develop its capacity to accept and sustain technology.

Automation devised to replace non-value-added work

Machine builders and developers might find more success by looking to enhance rather than replace the value of the human capital on which these companies rely.

This can be achieved by a detailed study of the workforce and by becoming aware of the work and reward systems.

Automation should first be devised to replace non-value-added work such as material handling and walking rather than harvesting and more sophisticated tasks.

Any new automation will need to remain as simple as possible while the farming community builds its technical comprehension and capacity.

Successful tools will enable the workforce to earn more money and be more productive on an individual basis.

Robot manufacturers will need to be the ones to foster the technical capacity of the agricultural community.

When automation is engineered for the purpose of replacing non-value-added work (such as material handling), it will not only allow the workforce to be more productive but further the sector?s technical capacity.

Nathan Dorn
Director, Farming Systems and Mechanization
Knowledge and Innovation Department
Reiter Affiliated Companies
Driscoll?s Best Berry Solution
Salinas, CA 93907