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Robots cut lettuce labour issue

20 August 2007

Installing 68 robots to process over 400,000 lettuces a day has helped a Spanish business to maintain continuity of output and control of quality, together with reducing labour demands, by 80%.

Agriculture is big business in the Murcia region of Spain. Climatic conditions and soil type allow the production of vast quantities of vegetables that are a major contributor to the Spanish economy. The agricultural industry in the region understands the importance of technology to maintain its competitive position in European markets, and actively applies research and development to keep ahead.

The value of technology has been firmly grasped and implemented by El Dulze, a family run business that produces lettuce. The company has invested in a new facility has an modern look, which is more familiar to the technology sector than to farming.

The implementation of technology in this plant is confirmed throughout the plant, and in the packaging area, the company now uses 68 Fanuc robots. The entire packaging system was installed by an Alicante-based Fanuc Robotics systems integrator, IT Robotics.

Lettuces taken straight from the ground are delivered to the plant in plastic containers stacked onto a euro pallet. These pallet stacks are located into a robot de-palletising area where a Fanuc Robotics R2000iB removes one tray at a time and pours the tray contents onto the packaging line conveyor.

The input conveyor orientates the lettuces so that they travel longitudinally onto the system conveyors. Positioned centrally on the input conveyor, and spaced individually, the lettuces are directed to the robot cutting stations.

Each robot, an LR Mate 200iB, performs the same task; and sensors on the conveyor direct lettuces to the next available station. At this point, the lettuce is orientated lengthwise on the conveyor, but the root end is randomly positioned.

A vision system at this point is used to weigh and measure the diameter to assess the density of the lettuce; with those falling outside the acceptable parameters rejected at this point. The vision system also identifies the root position to the robot, which then picks up the lettuce with a specially designed pneumatic gripper.

The robot then positions the lettuce into a cutting machine where the root is removed. A second check is then made on the size of the lettuce as the robot holds the lettuce under the camera again.

Lettuces that pass this final inspection are conveyed to an operator working at the robot station, and these are placed into a plastic tray. Full trays are placed back onto the conveyor and sent to the packing area.

The plant is capable of packaging 550,000 lettuces and is currently operating at 400,000 per day.

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