With the rise of smart farming in agriculture, equipment manufacturers face the challenge of maximizing machine uptime in harsh and extreme environments. Companies are leveraging different types of motion systems to improve reliability in their designs, with technology evolving alongside farming practices.
Such systems take advantage of advancements across automation more generally, which includes robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) systems, Internet of Things (IoT), as well as advanced sensor technologies.
The editors at Design World recently asked a number of leading automation and motion control manufacturers involved in the agriculture and off-highway automation industries about trends they’re seeing in the industry. Below are their insights.
Meet the experts
Chris Gottlieb | Director — drives and controls · Kollmorgen
Dave Walden | Applications engineer · PBC Linear
James Gallant |Director of operations · ISL Products International Ltd.
Jeff Maina | Senior applications engineer · PBC Linear
Kelly Walden | V.P. of manufacturing • Bishop-Wisecarver Corp.
Lindsey Brimage | Portfolio program manager · Thomson Industries, Inc.
Matt Mowry | Product manager — drylin linear bearings · igus
Nathan Andaya | Director — Techline SBU · Linak U.S.
Richard Canny | President · Ultimation Industries Inc.
Yoshitaka Umeno | Global market manager — medical and robotics · Kollmorgen
Has your company provided components or engineering support for automated farming or off-highway designs?
Gallant: Our dc motors and gearmotors are used in many different agricultural automation systems. Applications range from livestock scrubbing devices to help keep animals clean to moveable fences to robotic farming equipment like robots and plot planting devices. In fact, our dc gearmotors can be found in ATVs and UTVs alike. Some typical functions carried out by our motors are in winches and snowplow adjustment.
Brimage: Thomson continues to supply a wide range of linear motion products and systems into agricultural operations. A new product we offer for farming, all-terrain vehicles, and utility task vehicles are our polymer-bushing linear bearings. These components offer machine designers a reliable yet economical option for applications in which moment load is noncritical or where contamination is a concern.
Mowry: Agriculture automation is a growing industry for us. Our linear systems have been used to move lighting systems for indoor growing operations, and our delta robots have been used on weed-zapping robots to remove weeds via laser in the field. We’ve also supported applications with our linear robots; the latter carry cameras that take images and videos of particular plants or flowers so end users can remotely choose which they want to purchase.
Brimage: Polymer-bushing linear bearings are well suited for applications that require high static and shock load resistance, corrosion resistance, and chemical resistance to oil and grease. The polymer liner in these bearings makes them inherently self-lubricating, which is great for wet and dirty environments. Also, the grooved design allows thermal expansion and act as dirt channels that allow the bearings to remain operational in the presence of dirt.
Walden: Bishop-Wisecarver’s products are rugged and suited to harsh and extreme environments. As such, they’re found in a wide variety of agricultural applications — including self-guided agricultural equipment, automated planting and harvesting systems, and indoor farming systems.
Umeno: Kollmorgen has supported vertical and smart farming applications focused on high-value crops such as herbs and fruits. Our motion control solutions have high accuracy and energy efficiency to let machine builders provide automation for more efficient land use and less waste. Especially in harvesting applications, the demand for application-specific robotic arms is growing. We are addressing the need by co-developing with our customers and supplying frameless motor products that can be used in custom robotic arms. Learn more about TBM2G direct-drive frameless motors at kollmorgen.com.
Gottlieb: We sell into high-requirement markets such as smart farming, turf management, and other challenging markets. Our engineering team can work directly with engineers to select the best solutions for motion control in these markets.
Our distribution channel might be selling into CBD markets, but that’s not a market we knowingly play into today. One note on CBD: Currently, anything cannabis related is still technically illegal at the federal level. There are companies making solutions in the CBD space, but unless federal regulation catches up to state regulation, there is legal risk in making equipment for these machines.
Walden: Simplicity bearings are used in farming equipment for linear guidance of external farm implements and for operator cab linear movement or control mechanisms because of the impervious nature of a plain bearing in harsh environments. Our cam roller products (typically Hevi-Rail or V-Rail) are also used as an alternative robust roller solution to both agricultural and off-highway trencher equipment.
Maina: PBC Linear has seen increased demand for linear actuators that support automated agricultural processing systems related to indoor commercial vertical farming. We supply linear guide systems and actuators to this industry — typically for automating the motions of plant handling, directing light sources, moving aeroponics, spray irrigation, and fertigation nozzles. These automated efforts promote green energy-conservation methodology, which looks to provide only the necessary resources and nutrients to plants without waste, and to promote the proper recipe for food supply and recreational plants for expedited indoor growth. We offer corrosion-resistant solutions using Redi-Rail and V-Guide linear guides as well as SIMO Gliding Surface Technology (GST).
We’ve also seen increased demand for linear actuators for autonomous vehicles in agricultural processing. Automating such tasks with autonomous vehicles reduces the amount of labor that farmers would typically need to invest in maintaining a healthy yield of crops. We also continue to support more traditional agricultural designs (including forestry and heavy equipment as well as construction vehicles) by providing linear guidance that bears heavy loads and impacts during soil tilling, the planting of seedlings, and road construction.
Andaya: LINAK is on the leading edge when implementing electric linear actuators in agriculture and off-highway markets. The intelligence in our actuators lets them communicate via Controller Area Network (CAN) bus to vehicle systems, and the actuators can support implementation of agriculture and off-highway companies’ electrification strategies.
Are conveyors seeing increased use in agricultural applications?
Canny: Indoor farming is all about maximizing food production per acre, but growers who want to further increase yields should consider growing upward with the help of conveyor technologies that make use of the available vertical space within a facility. In fact, indoor vertical farming is expected to grow to $9.7B worldwide by 2026 from $3.1B in 2021, due to higher yields when compared to conventional farming, its capacity for year-round crop production, and advances in lighting and other technologies.
Conveyors are one of the simplest and quickest productivity improvements a fast-growing business can implement … and are especially suited to the vertical farming industry. Simple roller conveyors or overhead I-beam trolleys can have a payback of days or weeks, while larger custom-built systems often have payback periods of only three to six months. Ultimation is currently building the material handling system for what is believed to be the world’s largest indoor vertical farming facility.
Perhaps the most obvious way conveyor technologies can help increase indoor farming productivity is by taking advantage of unused vertical space above a work area. Overhead conveyors can lift growing trays when they’re not being actively managed and bring them back to operator level for tending and harvesting, allowing more produce to be grown within the same footprint.
Conveyors can also help reduce the manual labor of carrying items by hand, quickly and safely transporting plants from point A to point B. Systems can be engineered to seamlessly integrate with harvesting and packing equipment available through Ultimation’s expansive partner network. Ultimation uses materials made of galvanized steel, zinc-plated materials, and powder-coated frames which are approved for food-grade applications and are easily cleaned‚ another productivity savings for indoor farmers. Ultimation can also design systems for hanging towers and growth pods made of food-grade plastic when required.
Different types of conveyor systems are typically used for different parts of the growing process. For example, the sections of the farms where plants are sitting still can use simple, standardized material handling systems. Vertical format conveyors such as hanging towers or horizontal formats such as growing trays can be customized to match the grower’s needs. Once plants are grown, more sophisticated technologies such as automated motorized conveyors and automatic storage and retrieval systems are needed to safely move produce to the harvesting area. The most commonly used industrial automation equipment for indoor farming are gravity roller, belt, and skate wheel or flow rail conveyors. These systems use the force of gravity to move the load, allowing the product to roll along the upper surface.
More recently, the technology used in larger vertical farming systems is including motorized and overhead conveyors that take advantage of the generally unused vertical space above the working area. Using curved sections or even lifters, they bring produce down to operator level and back up to higher elevations as needed. Power and Free conveyors are the ultimate in space and volume optimization for vertical farming systems as they enable tight concentration of product in some areas while also enabling separation of the products for movement to processing areas. The best planned and best-run indoor farming facilities consider the product’s growth cycle and will likely use a combination of a conveyor system designs to maximize productivity. Our engineers understand the economics of indoor farming and can help growers design, build, and implement material handling solutions that meet their needs and budget.
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Filed Under: Industry trends, Factory automation, Off highway • construction