Robots are not likely to be picking fruit soon, but they are on the horizon.By Geoff Adams
Despite the advances in mechanisation in orchards, fruit is still plucked from the tree by human hands.
And a visiting US specialist in labour efficiency has told Goulburn Valley growers it’s likely to stay that way for some time.
Karen Lewis from the Washington State University visited the Ardmona property of Roger Lenne last week and pointed out that growers can still improve labour efficiency by fundamental approaches to harvesting.
‘‘The most important thing you can do to manage your labour-related risks in tree fruit production is to commit to simple, narrow, accessible and productive orchard systems, or ‘SNAP’,’’ Ms Lewis said.
She pointed out that labourers will soon find out if the orchard is difficult to work in and impacts on their productive ability.
It has been shown repeatedly that orchards with high density and simple plantings are more attractive to workers if all other things are equal.
‘‘This means that if you are known to be a fair to good employer and your wages are competitive you will be more attractive to workers if you have at least some of your blocks planted to ‘SNAP’ systems.
‘‘The most important thing growers can do is to manage the risk of labour; that is having enough people at the right time, with the right skills to do the job correctly.
‘‘What we have been doing in the US is redesigning the work site.’’
Ms Lewis said once the working area was suitable, workers needed clear instructions and explanations of why they were doing a task.
Meanwhile, Ms Lewis was able to show growers videos of ‘‘assisted harvest’’ machines operating in Washington.
Several use vacuum tubes attached to the bottom of pickers’ bags to carry the fruit into a receival bin.
The picker stands on a platform.
‘‘The most difficult part of the engineering is in replicating that hand.
‘‘When you go through the movements of finding the apple, grasping the apple and retrieving it, there is a lot of difficulty in there.
‘‘It’s not like a robot in a factory, where the manufactured part moves into position.
‘‘Out in the orchard, the fruit won’t be in the same place it was last year, or last week.
‘‘We have heat, cold, snow, dust and rain to deal with. A factory is a much more controlled environment.
‘‘We may eventually get that technology, but not in the rest of my career.’’
One of the new machines has a design for four platform pickers, two ground pickers, two sorters and one driver or rover for a total of nine people.
The machine shuttles over the empty bin and picks it up and lowers a bin-filling mechanism in the rear.
Fruit is picked in ‘‘short’’ picking bags and the four pickers on the machine deliver fruit to a sorting conveyor where culled fruit is dropped through a shoot to the ground.
The two pickers on the ground self sort and put fruit directly in the bin. Generally, the pickers are paid by the piece.
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