Guest Post By: Dr. Daniel Asmar, Professor, American University of Beirut
In the developing world, where labor is relatively cheap, it is particularly challenging to convince factory owners to invest in automation as a means of increasing output and reducing cost. This is particularly the case in Lebanon, a small country in which most businesses are family owned, and one person usually makes executive decisions.
In rural areas of Lebanon, where the level of education is relatively low, there is no shortage of `cheap’ manpower—or in this case womanpower. Compounded with the presence of roughly two million Syrian refugees, mostly in the Bekaa valley, building a compelling business case to catalyze research and development in the agro industry seems exceptionally challenging, especially in the food-handling sector. Yet, when one takes a closer look at the available solutions to increase output and reduce cost, we find inefficient, inaccurate, and slow equipment that hinder the potential for growth.
Grading cucumbers, the as-was status-quo
The task at hand is that of grading and sorting cucumbers for the pickling industry. Cucumbers are graded based on their length and diameter into four grades, according to the jar size in which they are eventually sold. The traditional approach for grading is to hire many women and have them sort through tons of cucumbers per day, a drudging and mentally uninspiring job, in addition to being inaccurate (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Manual sorting of cucumbers
E2 Engineering Developed an Innovative Solution
E2 engineering is a startup company that was incubated at the Center of Research and Innovation at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Two of its founders, Elie Shammas, and Daniel Asmar (Figure 2) are faculty members at the Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (SFEA). Figure 2. E2 founders, Elie Shammas (left), and Daniel Asmar (right)
E2 was approached by Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) to study possible solutions for this problem, by developing a machine that could automate this grading process. The solution had to be optical in nature, versus mechanical, for two main reasons: first, mechanical graders risk damaging the outer skin of a cucumber and second, by taking a picture of each cucumber, optical sorters have the potential to record statistics on the quality of the produce delivered by a farmer. Furthermore, an optical sorter offers alternative criteria for grading such as physical damage, color, or curvature.
Better Technology at a Better Price
After researching the market and visiting the Anuga fair on agro products in Cologne, we found many companies selling optical sorters; unfortunately, their machines were prohibitively expensive and could not guarantee proper grading of the cucumbers of our region. The cucumbers of the Levant are relatively small compared to European and North American cucumbers, and it is common for them to be highly curved.
Through a USAID grant, DAI proposed to fund the research part of the project, while the pickling company would pay for its base price. National Instruments Arabia recognized the long-term potential of this solution and provided on-going technical support.
Designing and manufacturing of the E2 cucumber sorter was a challenging yet exciting task. The requirement to sort 10 cucumbers per second pushed both the hardware and software to their limits while maintaining ruggedness and robustness. For the hardware, we relied on a CompactRIO-9035, to read from proximity sensors, to process images at 90 Hz, and to control six servo motors; as well as a TSM-1012, 12" Touch Screen acting as an HMI. Cucumber detection at the optical grading station had to be precisely synchronized with the cucumber ejection at the correct station, regardless of the conveyor speed.
The first concept drawing for the sorter is shown in Figure 3, and consists of a hopper to receive cucumbers, followed by an inspection table to align cucumbers in queue, followed by two accelerator belts, an optical system, and finally an ejection system.Figure 3. Drawing of the E2 cucumber sorter design
NI Partner Support
Our success was supported every step of the way by NI as we developed our software. Monzer Saleh, an Applications Engineering at NI at the time, answered our calls any time night or day, and frequently visited to our workplace to share his technical expertise and insights throughout our innovation process. It is remarkable how much National Instruments stands by it products, and how much they are willing to invest in their alliance partners to help ensure that success is the final outcome.
I think the greatest satisfaction we got out of this entire experience is seeing our machine being used at the pickling factory. It is heartwarming to hear the customers praise our machine, and their acknowledgement of using it for the full eight-hour shift without any significant problems.
The final cucumber sorter
Check out our video to see our machine in operation:
Figure 4. Panoramic (skewed) picture of the E2 cucumber sorter