Process and control today | WEG provides a bespoke automated cart system

Supporting an agricultural business to increase its efficiency gains

The humble potato has been voted the UK’s favorite vegetable, according to a new public poll. But do you know how they end up on your plate? here’s how industrial engine manufacturer, WEG has partnered with Technidrive to supply the equipment for an automated trolley system for plant propagator, John Gabbie & Sons, to help produce over 52 million seeds a year.

Propagation companies germinate and grow the plants until they are large enough to handle. These plants are then distributed to farmers, who grow them and sell them to supermarkets.

A propagation company behind this process, John Gabbie & Sons, based in County Down, Northern Ireland, has several greenhouses that germinate the seeds in sowing. These greenhouses measure up to half an acre and are divided into bays, which are up to ten meters wide and 16 meters long, with catwalks on which forklifts and tractors can climb and descend.

For plant distribution, an operator must drive a tractor or forklift along the path to move plant berries through the greenhouses. The plants are then physically transported to the end of the bay, crated and then sent to the farmers. As with many traditional farming practices, this process is labor intensive

John Gabbie & Sons approached WEG’s first distributor, Technidrive, to develop an automated solution. Technidrive is a supplier of industrial drives, in partnership with WEG, providing product lines such as variable speed drives, soft starters and energy efficient motors.

For this project, Technidrive called on WEG to supply two braked motors and a variable speed drive (VSD), with a braking resistor and a safe torque off (STO), an emergency stop function . This equipment is essential for the design and safety of an automated cart system, helping to transport product up and down in greenhouses safely, while ensuring seed growth.

Equipment development

At the start of the project, John Gabbie & Sons did not have a specific design in mind. The main requirements for the equipment were to save space, increase efficiency and, above all, to remove as much physical labor as possible. As the company’s first automation venture, the project would include automating just one of their greenhouses, with a long-term vision of fully automating all greenhouses.

The first phase of the project consists of an automated trolley system that runs along the railings of each walkway in the greenhouse. The cart also includes a sprayer that is mounted on the cart to feed the plants during cultivation.

The carriage placed on railings eliminates the need for a catwalk inside the greenhouses, which ran along the center of the greenhouse. Instead, the cart carries a push cart across the bay. Each span is nine meters wide and carries several trays of plants, eliminating the need for an operator to need a tractor, or a forklift, to reach the seedlings. Not only does this speed up the process, but it also allows the company to pack more produce in the greenhouse.

To make this possible, Technidrive has developed a control panel for the automated trolley system. This includes a joystick to drive and steer the trolley, allowing an operator to control the movement of the trolley when maneuvering around the greenhouse. There are also switches on the panel for additional controls, such as locking the pins to stop the carriage at a bay.

Importantly, automation allows an operator to move a batch of plants from the middle of a bay, without the physical labor of transporting them. An operator can simply drive the trolley along the guardrails, before using the locking pins – which extend into the floor – to park the trolley at the specified bay. The operator can then push the trolley, which is also nine meters wide, to lift the tray of seeds and put them on the trolley – either to move it to another location in the greenhouse or to prepare them for distribution.

Improved with Automation

WEG’s braked motors ensure the cart is securely fixed in position, stopping the equipment. In fact, the associated VSD prevents the carriage from braking suddenly, ensuring that the machine stops smoothly for two seconds and does not damage seedlings or peripheral equipment in the process.

“Technidrive has been working with WEG for years, so as soon as we knew the equipment requirements for the John Gabbie & Sons project, it was a matter of getting in touch and sourcing the motors and variable speed drive,” explained Gary Kernaghan, automation manager at Technidrive.

“The first phase is now complete and the plant propagator is reaping the rewards of a more automated process. The next phase is to ensure the implementation of this application in all John Gabbie & Sons greenhouses. However, not all greenhouses are built in parallel, nor is the ground level, so each phase will require a slightly different process. We’ve already started looking at phase two where we’ll have to drop the cart almost two meters, while adjusting the angle to put it on another set of rails.

“The next phase is to make it a fully automated system, which means the operator picks the stock and the trolley picks it up automatically. We will need the expertise of WEG before everything goes live.

Reflecting on the importance of WEG’s involvement in the project, Trevor Gabbie, farmer at John Gabbie & Sons, explained: “Technidrive and WEG couldn’t be more helpful. WEG even phoned me to talk about the engine specs, they are dedicated to what they do and we trust them to deliver quality products.

“Automating this process is very valuable, as we sell more than 52 million seeds per year to farmers. I saw a similar app from other propagators, but wanted to build it my way to make sure it was perfect for our greenhouses. From January to June, we sell seed every week in a demand-driven market – and Technidrive and WEG’s solution will allow us to maintain this momentum for years to come.

With the help of WEG and Technidrive, plant propagation company John Gabbie & Sons can keep up with demand by germinating seeds in seedlings – whether for leeks, sprouts or, the favorite of all, the humble potato.

For more information on WEG’s engine supply for agricultural and agricultural projects, please visit www.weg.net.

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