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Engineering students develop automation machinery for strawberry industry

The students in New Mexico State University's Engineering Technology 305 course, Design for Manufacturing, learned more than engineering concepts this past semester. They gained experience with business, innovation, customer service, teamwork and leadership as well. And while they were at it, they may have come up with something that could significantly help the strawberry industry.

Four students operate a strawberry plant packaging prototype.
Students Chase Remley, Joshua Bruder, Jose Limon and Diego Mollono (left to right) evaluate the motions of the mechanisms in their prototype. (NMSU photo by Linda Fresques)

Under the tutelage of Engineering Technology Assistant Professor Luke Nogales, the students spent the spring semester developing an automated method for packaging strawberry plants. The existing process is primarily done by hand.

The project is the result of the College of Engineering Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center's history of developing automation methods for New Mexico's chile and agriculture industry. Working with the New Mexico Chile Growers Association, M-TEC engineers have developed machines to sort, thin and de-stem one of our state's most important crops.

Anthony Hyde, director of M-TEC, thought agricultural engineering could be useful to other agricultural groups from around the country that had contacted M-TEC, one of which was Driscoll's, the nation's largest strawberry supplier.

"There is a nursery side of the business and a strawberry production side," Hyde explained. "Growers start with live plants rather than seed. They need 30,000 plants per acre and in California there are more than 40,000 acres of strawberries grown in California, which equates to millions of strawberry plants that have to be boxed and delivered to farmers. Oregon and Florida are also strawberry producers."

M-TEC received a contract to develop small bench-scale models to further automate the plant packaging process. The initial objective of the project is for M-TEC and the ET 305 class to demonstrate feasible concepts. If the designs do well, they would then be refined based on feedback from Driscoll's, tested and validated at a processing facility.

M-TEC engineers had already been working on another strawberry plant nursery project for the industry.

Removing the flowering buds from strawberry plants helps propagate more daughter plants. Currently, people remove the buds by hand to prevent them from maturing into berries. M-TEC engineers developed a freezer that mimics nature. Initial testing shows that the freezer will kill the flower buds but not the plants.

"There are a lot of changes going on in the agricultural business," Nogales said. "Strawberry farming is very labor intensive and it's becoming harder for suppliers to find the necessary labor and there is an increasing cost associated with that labor."

Nogales said the project is challenging because of the inconsistent shape and form of the strawberry plants. "We needed to develop something that could align, groom and orient the plants, but most importantly, count and package the plants. The expectation is that the automated method would be able to process plants as fast as the current method which is being performed by people."

Nogales began the iterative design process with his students during the first half of the semester by having students conduct research, brainstorm ideas, sketch potential designs and create 3D models. The second half of the semester involved the fabrication of prototypes that were capable of testing their best concepts.

"The idea is to get a quick and cheap preliminary read if something has merit. Some of the ideas were not so promising, but others were worthy of taking forward to the next step."

The class followed a traditional design process, albeit with a twist.

Nogales had his students take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, a tool that helps identify personality types. He formed teams based on the results of the test, putting various personality types together for maximum benefit - a process that he learned about while pursuing his master's degree at Northwestern University and used as an innovator at Procter & Gamble.

"The methodology worked very well," he said. "Not to say that there wasn't conflict or tension, but the students could recognize and work with the personality traits of their team members."

"The most important lesson I took away from this experience was how to be more creative through teamwork and collaboration," said student Diego Mollono.

The four teams made prototypes of their most promising designs with guidance from M-TEC engineers Charlie Park and Yu-Ping Tang. Driscoll's provided strawberry plants to test the prototypes. Students and M-TEC presented their prototypes to Driscoll's via teleconference.

"Charlie and Yu-Ping were invaluable in helping the students bring their ideas to life - many of the students stayed after class to work with them," Nogales said.

As a result of the class, the students, all juniors in mechanical engineering technology, will have some valuable credentials to add to their resumes: ideation, design, prototyping, teamwork and leadership. Most importantly, they can say they have real-world experience in innovation and have showcased a product they designed to a client.

"I learned how important deadlines are in industry, therefore this has been a valuable experience that will give me an advantage when presenting myself to future employers," Mollono said.

And if Driscoll's pursues patents on any of the designs, the students will be named on the patent.

"It was a real pleasure working with the New Mexico State group. Their brainstorming ideas led to some interesting concepts that will now go to the next stage of building a prototype for trialing in the fall of 2013," said Bob Tipton, Driscoll's nursery manager.

"This is a very dedicated group of students," Hyde said.

M-TEC is now investigating how it can help grape producers for the wine industry, Hyde added.