KINGSVILLE, Ontario - There's no sign of a track on the polished concrete floor, yet the driverless engine goes straight to the packing room load of yellow plastic crates filled with freshly harvested mini cucumbers.

The little train makes its way out the door of Mucci Farms' new lit greenhouse and down the long hall before making a wide U-turn into the station.

Once its load is weighed and the output of every harvester is noted automatically (the best will get a bonus), a robotic arm sweeps the yellow RPCs and their contents into the adjacent room for packing. New crates appear, sterilized and dried, and are automatically loaded onto the now-empty carts.

Guided by the invisible 24-volt conduction wire embedded in the floor, the little train quietly returns to the greenhouse and stops in the zone - there are four - where the empty crates are needed.

In the packing room next door, workers in white lab coats and gloves pack preportioned mini cukes into Eat Brighter!-branded bags. Beside them, a machine stands ready to automatically fill black Styrofoam trays of mini cucumbers.

Grower Gaetan Totaro said the workers now packing cukes by hand won't lose their jobs when their line is automated one day. The company is expanding so rapidly and labor is so hard to find there will be plenty of other jobs available.

Though Mucci imported its automated equipment from the Netherlands, they might just take a drive down the highway next time to see what manager Darren Ward and his commercialization team are up to at the eight-month-old Collaborative Research Technology Centre at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland, Ontario.

The center's robotics and automation program was created to design automation technology for the greenhouse sector. They already have potential buyers for their first invention, a Canadian-made robotic arm that places graded mini cucumbers on trays, each machine capable of filling 240 trays an hour.

"It's elegant as opposed to complex," Ward says, "a nice example of simple automation."

The center is also working on a robot to harvest mushrooms, as well as an irrigation system designed to mimic a grower's decisions. It's for use in non-hydroponic greenhouses such as the floral industry that pot their plants in soil or a substrate.

The industry has saved a lot of labor in post-harvest handling, notes Glen Snoek, marketing and economic policy analyst for Leamington's Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.but harvesting remains people intensive because humans are still able to harvest vegetables faster and smarter than robots.

"With the speed of automation, my intuition is it will change sooner rather than later," said Snoek.

 
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