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Chris Hendrickson, technician for Oxbo, looks on as pickers test the machine at a Stemilt orchard in Quincy, Washington. The two picking platforms on the machine can be hydraulically raised or lowered to adjust the area of the canopy within reach of the upper pickers. Photo by Geraldine Warner

Chris Hendrickson, technician for Oxbo, looks on as pickers test the machine at a Stemilt orchard in Quincy, Washington. The two picking platforms on the machine can be hydraulically raised or lowered to adjust the area of the canopy within reach of the upper pickers.
Photo by Geraldine Warner

Picker Technologies’ self-propelled harvest system has adjustable platforms at the front where two pickers can stand to pick from the tops of the trees while two more pickers go down the row in front of the machine on foot. Workers place the apples into pneumatic tubes that carry the fruit up to an electronic sorter at the top. The fruit then goes into either a fresh or cull bin, to eliminate the need to take culls to the warehouse, and electronic data on the quality and size of the fruit can be accessed immediately by the grower and the packing house.

At other times of year, the system can be used to carry workers doing tasks other than picking.

Ask Vince Bryan III what increase in picking efficiency apple growers can expect from using the Picker Technologies mobile harvest system, and he’ll say it depends. It depends on how fast the picking crew can pick, because the machine can go faster than they can.“When people ask me, ‘What are our productivity aims?’ I always turn it around and say, ‘How fast can your pickers pick? People are the limiting factor.”

Looking at a return-on-investment analysis of the technology, there’s not just one big thing that returns money to the grower, he explained. Bryan, chief executive officer of Picker Technologies, has compiled a list of almost 50 ways that the system can benefit the grower in the areas of added value, productivity, fruit quality, and worker safety, compared to using ladders or platforms.

“We have made a machine that can go faster than the pickers can sustain their picking. The industry has not yet recognized that where you get the productivity gain is in training your teams to work with the machine and—depending upon the fruit varieties you’re growing, the orchard configuration, and the yield—there are subtle things you can do that have a dramatic impact on the productivity.”

An important factor is fruit size. Though growers refer to yields in terms of bins, a bin might contain anywhere from 1,500 large apples to 3,000 small ones, so the smaller apples could take twice as long to pick. Growers should be thinking in terms of apples per minute sustained (APMS) rather than bins, Bryan said.

Picker Technologies sought the advice of growers in designing the harvest system and has come close to delivering on everything requested, Bryan said. The focus was on addressing all aspects that take away from time the workers spend actually picking, including climbing up and down ladders.

The self-propelled system has adjustable platforms at the front where two pickers can stand to pick from the tops of the trees, while two more pickers go down the row in front of the machine on foot. Workers place the apples into pneumatic tubes that carry the fruit up to an electronic sorter at the top. The fruit then goes into either a fresh or cull bin, to eliminate the need to take culls to the warehouse, and electronic data on the quality and size of the fruit can be accessed immediately by the grower and the packing house. At different times of year, the system can be used to carry workers doing tasks other than picking.

Prototypes

Prototypes have been continuously tested since 2008 in both apples and citrus. A couple of final changes were made during the past year. One modification allows the picking platforms to be lowered to just two feet above the ground for working in young orchards or in those where the crop is mainly in the bottom of the trees. Another change improves the navigation of the system around large trees that don’t form a fruiting wall.

The company has invested $10 million in the project, and is handing it over to its partner, the equipment manufacturer Oxbo, which is getting ready to take commercial orders. Growers can add their names to a waiting list on the PickerTech Web site so they will be contacted when Oxbo releases the product for sale.

Bryan said Washington growers appear somewhat reluctant to adopt the latest technologies, even though they are in other respects big risk takers. Without the willingness to take a technology leap, innovation will be delayed, and growers face the risk of not being able to pick their crops.

With looming labor shortages in the Pacific Northwest, now is the time for growers to seriously consider buying or leasing a harvesting system and to figure out how to maximize the use of it to get the fastest possible return on investment, he said. Changes to immigration laws are not going to solve the lack of labor, even if they happen.

The solution, he believes, is to create a work environment where pickers don’t need to be athletes who have to climb up and down ladders carrying 60 pounds of fruit, getting tired and slow as the day goes by. The harvest system increases the potential labor pool because the work becomes less demanding.

“It doesn’t need to be my machine,” he stressed. In fact, Bryan and the developers of the DBR harvesting system in Michigan have discussed the possibility of working together. While growers might think competition is beneficial and might help keep pricing low, Bryan said the opposite is true. Each of the machines has patented components—which include the transport tubes and the dry bin filler, in the case of PickerTech. By combining their efforts and incorporating the best aspects of each system, an improved harvester might more easily be developed.

Bryan sees his harvesting system as a core technology that might incorporate other technologies in the future as they are developed, rather than becoming obsolete. Bryan said it would not surprise him if, in 20 years, the machine has four robotic arms in place of the four pickers, but robotics experts will develop that technology. In the meantime, the harvesting system can help increase productivity by making human pickers more productive.

“You have to make the decision that it has to be done and it has to be done now,” he said. “What we’ve tried to do is give you a tool that makes a big jump in your productivity. Now you have to do it.”

Mechanized

Bryan said the urgency comes not just from the potential labor crisis in the Northwest, but the fact that other apple-producing countries around the world are already becoming more mechanized. Growers in Australia and Chile and Europe are actively seeking out better solutions than traditional ladders or low-tech platforms.

“In the last year, I’ve had an opportunity to travel and talk to a lot of people around the world,” he said. “It’s been an eye-opener. The startling thing to me is that we have here, in the United States, an attitude that we’re leading the world in agriculture. We are blessed with our soils and climate and locations, and all of those things, but we’re not leading the world in the technology to bring this forward. In fact, we’re last, and we’ve gotten away with it because of the bounty that we harvest.”

By PickerTech’s calculations, buying or leasing a harvester would make economic sense for a grower with 80 acres of orchard as long as it is diversified so that harvest stretches over 8 to 10 weeks. If the trees form a fruiting wall, so much the better, but the flexible tubes into which the workers put the fruit allow them to walk around and harvest from the bigger trees in low-density orchards as well. Bryan said when PickerTech began working on the project, it knew that the system had to be able to improve productivity in plantings of different ages and systems, because the typical orchard has both.

Since every orchard is different, Picker Technologies has created economic models where growers can input their own data to calculate the return on investment. To get the most out of the system, growers will have to train their workers to use the machine and operate it for two shifts a day, seven days a week. They might want to share a machine with a neighbor.

The harvester can be used to pick other types of fruits, such as peaches and pears, because the patented tubes can accommodate objects of various sizes and shapes. In fact, with the fruit harvester complete, Bryan is now focusing on developing fish passage and handling systems using the same tube design, and is renaming the company Whooshh Innovations.

For more information about the machine, go to the Whooshh Web site.