‘We won’t even begin to consider developing a solution if the pay-back time is longer than three and a half years,’ says Piet Oomen, director and owner of the ISO Group in Gameren. This company was established in 2009 for the development of machines that has robots integrated in them. Since then, the ISO Group has developed fully-automated robots for numerous crops. ‘An integrated robot doesn’t need to be more expensive than a conventional machine.’

What prompted you to start developing robot applications in horticulture?

‘The year 2009 saw a substantial crisis in the horticulture industry. We noticed that at our machine plant as well. One of the horticulture firms near us rooted millions of cuttings every year. One day, we put our heads together and developed an automated rooting tool for plant cuttings. That was the beginning, and it had an enormous impact on our company. We were soon able to incorporate the combination of vision technology and robotics into a wide variety of applications.’

How is your company working on the development or robot applications?

‘We apply robot applications and vision technology to automated tools for clipping and rooting plant cuttings, grading machines, transplanters and grafting equipment. Working in collaboration with our partners in the field of vision technology, we continually aim to raise the bar even higher. This means: training robots to “see” better, in combination with the accurate and failure-free processing of materials. We are now able to process increasingly smaller or more complex cuttings and are attaining ever higher levels of precision in grading. Thanks to our and Wageningen University and Research Centre’s concerted efforts in the field of 3D vision, we are now able to process the vines of potted roses faster than ever before, and monitor the growth process of such plants with greater precision, too.’

What is the average pay-back time for an ‘average’ robot application?

‘An investment in one of our robot applications will earn itself back between two and three and a half years. This is quite short, actually. However, it is more difficult to get financing for long-term investments. This is why we won’t even consider developing a robot application with a pay-back time longer than that. An integrated robot doesn’t need to be more expensive than a conventional machine. The investment in a robot is usually earned back within a short space of time due to the lower price, simple operation and even lower maintenance costs.’

What is your vision of the future for robots in horticulture?

‘We will continue to make improvements in terms of quality and speed. I have high hopes with regard to phenotyping: the ability to predict quality-related results based on external plant traits. This is highly useful not only in grading plants, but in selecting seeds as well. And my own agenda remains: to continue to remain ahead of the competition with cheap labour. One of our customers decided, for instance, to relocate to Africa, where labour was cheaper. He recently returned to the Netherlands and started using automatic rooting equipment for plant cuttings. A robot application not only saves labour, the uniform level of quality it can produce is just as important. A robot will root all cuttings at precisely the same depth, for example. Robots never do anything in a random way.’

Text: Tuinbouwteksten.nl/Mario van Vliet | Photo: Mario Bentvelsen.

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