Dec 21, 2017
MSU apple harvesting/sorting system evolving

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) say they remain on track in developing an in-orchard harvesting aid/ sorting machine that could prove to be significantly lower in cost than other existing systems.

Renfu Lu, research leader for the USDA/ARS Sugarbeat and Bean Research Unit at MSU, joined several of his students in demonstrating the features of a prototype apple harvesting sorting machine in Sparta, Michigan this past harvest season.

“We’ve come a long way,” Lu said. “We still have a long way to go. It’s not a commercial version, it’s an experimental version, but we’ve come a long way and made significant progress.”

Renfu Lu, research leader for the USDA/ARS Sugarbeat and Bean Research Unit at Michigan State University, demonstrates the features of a prototype apple harvesting sorting machine. Photos: Gary Pullano

Lu said the machine is not yet under patent and a commercial vendor is being sought to continue the development of the project.

“We would like to work with a commercial partner who can turn this into a commercial version,” he said.

An eight-year journey led the project’s architects to showcase the redesigned apple harvester/sorting machine unit to growers and industry representatives gathered at the farm of MSU Extension Educator Phil Schwallier on the Fruit Ridge.

Currently, Lu stated, both defective and sound apple fruits are not sorted at harvest, but are combined, causing significant storage losses due to the defective fruits being susceptible to pest and disease infestation. The result is costly postharvest handling to remove unmarketable fruits.

While Lu’s team is still fine-tuning the system so that it so that it eventually will be more precise in identifying defective fruit coming off the tree in the sorting process, they once again successfully demonstrated its sorting prowess at the demonstration attended by a number of Michigan growers.

The demonstration was hampered somewhat by technical problems with the machine’s computerized functions, apparently due to dampness encountered in heavy downpours during the previous day’s trip from the MSU campus. But growers in attendance remained largely encouraged by the prospects of a machine that could reduce the need for manpower and boost postharvest efficiency.

“We started the redesign in 2015,” Lu said. “We’re working with a small agriculture equipment company in Casnovia, Michigan. We provided our design based on what we have done in the past.”

Lu touted “three major features” of the machine.

“First, it combines harvest aid and automatic sorting functions,” he said. “It’s not fully automated, but it still has a platform and harvest conveyor system in which you pick apples put them on a conveyor.

“Then, we have a computer-controlled automation system that will inspect each apple for size and color. It sorts apples into two grades – fresh and cull.”

Click image to expand.

Lu said the second significant feature of the machine is a bin filler using a special mechanism on the bin filler that is operated independently with the controls on board.

“It automatically measures the filling level and adjusts the bin height,” he said.

That leads to the third major feature of this system – automatic bin handling.

“When we started the project, we didn’t think about it,” he said, referring to the need to reduce tasks for workers in order to achieve efficiencies.

“A couple of growers came to us and said, ‘if I spend a couple minutes handling the bin, then it won’t work because we have to stop.’ If you look at some commercial systems, you still need people to follow the machine and the crew needs to stop and pull out the bin and put in another bin.

“We pick up the bin in front and load it into place, and then we have sensors controlled by the computer that will automatically monitor the positon of individual bins,” Lu said. “Then the bin fillers will take over and automatically fill the bin. When the bins are full, the computer knows that, and will move the bin back. Then a new empty bin comes moving into place, so it will be a continuous process.”

“When the cull bins are full, we have three bin fillers, and another bin filler in front that is used as a back-up bin for cull, so the harvesting crew can continue to pick apples,” he said.

“Once the new fresh bins are full, it moves out and the back-up cull bin moves into positon.”

An onboard camera will take 15 images to help the sorting process, he said.

Safety features are built in to make sure pending bin movement is acknowledged by the workers.

“In principle, the process will cause minimal down time for the harvest crew. So, we hope that it can improve productivity of the harvest and also achieve cost savings for postharvest handling.”

The project has received funding support from USDA-ARS, as well as the Michigan Apple Committee.

“There’s many people in the project,” Lu said. “First, I want thank my agency, USDA, for allowing me to work on this project. It takes a lot of resources, manpower and time.”

He also credited the Michigan Apple Committee for “supporting the project over these years. Without the industry support, we probably couldn’t continue to work on this project.”

Lu has worked with an advisory group that includes Schwallier, local growers Jim Engelsma and Chris Kropf, as well as MSU Extension Educator Amy Irish-Brown.

“They have been very supportive of this project the past couple of years, and provided advice and encouragement,” Lu said.

“A lot of times I work with my students,” Lu said. “There’s a hands-on expense in terms of making things. We use our machine shop and we’re also working on computers with the control sensors. I thank the MSU engineering department for providing space and working with me.”

— Gary Pullano, managing editor


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