Using Cameras to Grow and Package Food

For plants to grow they need air, sun, and industrial automation. Okay. Nothing replaces water but find out how machine vision is playing a vital role in all phases of getting food from the farm to the table.

From Seed to Maturity

Research on plant growth is underway in large, fully automated greenhouses. Conveyors move the plants from one station to another to get the right amount of light and water. The operation is described in the article Food Agricultural Applications Use Full Spectrum of Machine Vision Cameras.

A variety of visible and shortwave infrared (SWIR) cameras are used to measure water absorption because water absorbs SWIR radiation. Images that are taken show how much water flows through leaves and roots. The controlled conditions let researchers measure the effects of drought or too much water.

Outside of the greenhouse, remotely operated drones equipped with long-wave infrared thermal cameras are used in vineyards in water-stressed areas like California.

The same techniques can be used to identify good produce from bad during the shipping and packaging phases. Cameras that take images of the outside of foods can identify shapes and colors. The SWIR detects problems like foreign objects inside the fruit and produce.

This aspect of machine vision is helping farms produce more food with fewer resources.

Sorting for Quality

Working with produce shows how automation is able to handle items that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The era when robots could only repeat actions with items fitting exact specifications is long gone.

In the write-up, Robots with an Appetite for Food, high-speed, high-resolution cameras, LED illumination and 3D computer modeling account for variances in tomatoes, apples, and bell peppers. Early season produce is a different size from later in the season when the fruits and vegetables have matured. The food can be sorted by color, size, and shape.

Meat processors, too, have superhuman detection abilities. Deboning a ham has become high tech to get as much meat off the bone as possible. Profit comes from cutting that yields the greatest amount of meat.

An X-ray detection system automatically determines whether the right or the left side is the proper side for cutting. The bone length is measured to locate the joints so the cutting is precise. Profitable cuts are made fast and the system is able to debone about 500 hams per hour.

Packaging and Palletizing

Vision systems have become critical for packaging food and beverages. The variety of products companies are handling and supplying continues to increase. Many have their own special processing requirements.

Vision systems allow robots to account for variations in part sizes and shapes and provide additional value by adding inspection tasks. The article Packaging and Palletizing Robots Solve Industry Pain Points mentions how vision is integrated into robotic packaging lines to combine product inspection, quality control and bar code reading.

Industrial automation is not a solution for only multinational agriculture concerns. Craft brewery Widmer Brothers of Portland, Oregon makes a popular product. The early days were met with success and customers wanted more. Getting the product to market in increasingly larger quantities was tough.

Widmer Brothers automated its operations to efficiently package its products and meet customer demands, reduce the risk of injury to employees loading cases of beer onto pallets, and align the product for bottling.

Their story and a look at their operations is featured on A3 Automate's video series "Why I Automate – Widmer Brothers."

Get informed on how automated systems are being used in a variety of industries. Connect with best practice resources and hands-on trainings and events on A3.