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ROBOTS HELP FEED THE WORLD

19 July 2018

ROBOTS HELP FEED THE WORLD

Agriculture has become tremendously complex over the past decades, as it adapts to a constantly evolving world. With a global population that is expected to grow by over a third and to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, food distribution and availability are two challenges that we will inevitably have to face. Furthermore, most of the growth will be concentrated in emerging countries, such as Brazil and India. These countries’ economies are rapidly changing and—as family incomes grow and the middle class expands—creating greater consumption levels.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that to feed a flourishing urban world population, annual grain production will need to increase to 3 billion metric tons, while meat production will need to expand to 470 million metric tons. Thus, growers will need to produce more food with less labor and limited usable land. The agricultural world of the 21st century is one of risk management, including labor challenges, environmental changes, constant demand from consumers, corporate farming, requirements from governmental agencies, worldwide circulation of goods, food safety and sanitation, and so on.

How can businesses in the agricultural sector drastically expand their production while dealing with limited resources? Industry specialists have multiple formulas to overcome this unprecedented growth and these contingency factors, but the main one lies in automation and robotics. Why and, above all, how? Our experts, Dave Ralph and Curt Davis, from Prairie Engineering, explain the solutions for a long-term sustainable approach.


PRODUCING MORE WITH LESS

Today it is nearly impossible to feed the entire world population, and it will not become easier in the future unless we change our practices. In the past, the diets of emerging countries consisted mainly of rice and vegetables. Now that some of them are growing economically, like India, Brazil or the South East Asian countries, they are consuming and demanding more protein-based food—and that means more grain to feed
the livestock. In fact, 48% of all corn production goes directly to produce feed for animals, and this percentage is even greater for soybeans.

Seed companies are all striving to create stronger plants that can produce enough crops on limited land area. With the help of biotechnology, they are trying to change the seed composition as fast as they can, but that means a more expensive final product. Fifteen years ago, a bag of corn seeds cost around 65 USD, while today it is around 400 USD. ‘‘The seed, a high-value product, needs to be handled carefully with new technologies. By saving one kernel at a time, equipment can help preserve the product’s quality and integrity,’’ explains Dave Ralph.

Industrial equipment suppliers, in collaboration with growers, are therefore developing solutions for handling seeds and grains that manipulate the product with care. These technologies must evolve to fit in limited spaces and reduce product loss to a minimum. Updated automation and robotics systems that can produce more with less are now a sustainable option, making it possible to produce improved seeds and protect crops from physical damage. These systems are also ideal for factories that need to enhance their production in order to meet their own customers’ needs.


AUTOMATION FOR PRODUCTIVITY

While many still conceive of the agricultural industry as a very traditional sector, the truth is that automation has been creeping into its processes for several years now. It’s now quite common to see robots in the fields, in the conditioning processes, as well as in the packaging line.
New technologies allow manufacturers and producers to increase their production to keep pace with the unceasing demand. Some companies have already fully embraced this trend by adding robot pickers in the fields and completely automated packaging lines with integrated robots. But with all that increasing production, there’s still another challenge facing companies: labor.

The unreliability of the workforce, whether it’s in the field, the plants or the factories, is becoming a major issue, especially since Millennials have begun entering the job market. Agricultural companies are dependent on this unstable labor, which can create gaps in the production rate from one day to another. Automating processes and integrating robots in the production line is an effective way of adapting to the new workforce generation while attaining production efficiency. Technoseeds, a company located in Brazil that provides bagging services for the corn seeds market, had to adapt to be more competitive and therefore introduced robots in their processing and packaging line. “Automation provides us with flexibility, large-scale production, standardization, and quality,” explained production manager Lucas Lopes Lemos.

‘‘Compared to 15 years ago, the customer profile in the agriculture industry is also completely different. Businesses are getting bigger and long-time family farms are merging, giving way to the new corporate farm model,’’ explains Curt Davis. And they are merging in droves: worldwide, the agricultural sector went from around 250 moderately sized companies to 10 to 15 colossal companies. The overall effect of the mergers in the last 2 years has been to shift the seed business to China and Central Europe.


AN INDISPUTABLE SOLUTION

With high costs, small profit margins and very little control over crop price, farmers’ only way to keep pace is to be more efficient. When farms got bigger, packaging also got bigger. Fifteen years ago, 90% of seeds were bagged in 50-pound paper bags. Today, companies try to save costs by enlarging bulk containers to hold up to 2000 pounds of seeds.

This tactic leads to other concerns, such as how to protect loads and products, which often need to travel 30,000 kilometers in various conditions and timeframes. That fact alone is driving the trend toward automation in factories because the loads are heavier and dangerous for workers to handle manually. Automation and robotics are essential to ensuring the well-being of the workforce and the economic health of the producer.
Land space is not increasing, climate change is disrupting ecosystems, and this makes it even more difficult to grow crops and raise animals.

At the same time, we are consuming more food than ever before, and in a relatively short time, we will need to produce 3 times more food than we produce now. The goal of every player in the agricultural industry is to increase output per units of land while also respecting the environment. To achieve this goal, everyone involved needs to follow a long-term strategy of investing in the necessary equipment and methods. The previous agricultural model is no longer sustainable. Innovation and new technologies are increasingly providing tools to manage the risks farmers and producers encounter every day.

With the help of robots and automation, we can feed the world.

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