Robots serving fruits and vegetables production
Robotics may provide solutions to issues facing the production of fruit and vegetables, and this could potentially encourage farmers to adopt robotics, according to David FRABOTTA, moderator of the round table. Several experts gathered to discuss the impact of robotics on the harvest, in regards to fruit and vegetable production: Jean INDERCHIT, Product Manager at Naio Technologies, Céline FRANQUESA, Chief Operating Officer at SYHA and José Miguel ARIZABALO BARRA, CEO at HORTIFRUT (Chile).
Jean INDERCHIT works for Naïo Technologies as a product manager in charge of DINO, a weeding robot for vegetable beds. Launched in 2016, DINO the straddling robot is used more for large farms. Its focus is mainly weeding, and its success among its users prompted NAIO to export it to the United States.
SYHA is developing a harvesting robot for greenhouse crops in order to cope with the labor shortage affecting agriculture. As Céline FRANQUESA reports, SYHA has worked closely with its customers, and together they managed to develop a robot that meets their needs.
Finally, Hortifrut is a leading berry producer based in Chile and exporting to all continents. This is a position that the producer wishes to maintain, hence his interest in robotics. “At Hortifrut, we have a dream: we want a robotic solution to harvest our blueberries. “
Demonstrate the added value of the robot to the farmer
The major challenge for manufacturers is to convince the farmer to use his robot, by showing him what the robot can do for him: reduce the use of chemicals, compensate for labor shortage… But above all, according to Jean INDERCHIT, farmers want to be reassured about the daily use of the robot: how does the machine work? How to recharge it? What to do when there is a security problem? The way everyone perceives the robot has changed: everyone is now ready for it, according to Jean. "People used to laugh when we showed our robots, now they ask questions," he says.
The whole challenge therefore lies in selling a solution to the customer rather than just a robot, in ensuring the monitoring and supporting the farmer for the use and adaptation of the tool to his needs. As a producer, José Miguel ARIZABALO BARRA adds that it is essential that manufacturers observe their robot in the field so as to adapt the solution they offer to the needs of the farmer. It is therefore necessary to test and modify the robot to ensure that it performs the function that the customer required. “It's a process of continuous improvement,” sums up David.
“We don't want to lie to our customers by telling them that in two years they will have the perfect robot”, specifies Céline FRANQUESA
But then, we have to get customers to accept that robots are imperfect, at least at the beginning. “This is what we do at SYHA,” says Céline. "We are transparent and explain to the customer that the solution will not be perfect at the beginning, but eventually, step by step, our collaboration will make us achieve the expected result". What a producer expects from the robot manufacturers is that they provide after-sales technical support.
What business model for manufacturers?
In the words of Jean INDERCHIT, the ideal business model is unlikely to exist: it depends on the country where the robot is marketed and the manufacturer-producer relationships. "We have never sold robots at a trade show for example, because we need to establish a relationship with the customer." According to José, collaboration between the two parties is necessary to see how to make the most of it: “it's difficult for us producers because we have to get a budget for the purchase of these machines, but we don't know exactly what the added value of the robot is or what the cost of the monitoring service will be. ” That is why it is important to work very closely with the manufacturers.
Standardization to promote acceptability
“When Naïo was created, we didn't think about standardization. We just wanted to release our robot as quickly as possible,” explains Jean. “However, we realized that we needed standardization.” The problem is that these standards do not exist and must be created. How? It can be achieved through ensuring the connection and communication between Naio and SYHA, for example. But it is difficult for small businesses like these to tackle the creation of these standards on their own. “We need large companies to help us set these standards,” says Jean. This topic of standardization was discussed in more detail during FIRA 2019, find the link here.
“Hardware is hard”
The question of the relationship between manufacturers and investors is crucial. Indeed, investors may be reluctant to invest because “Hardware is hard” which means that investing in technological equipment such as robots is uncertain: the robot may work for two years then become obsolete and thus require a redesign. The manufacturers must earn the trust of the investors, by showing, for example, that there is a demand, a market and that the solution is convincing, which is once again in line with the desire to meet the needs of producers.