“The benefit of using conveyors in vertical farming is to automate the movement of plants enabling us to maximize the volume density of the product being grown without requiring human assistance for movements,” says Kali Crescent, the e-commerce business unit manager at Ultimation Industries, LLC.
Ultimation has designed conveyor, or material handling, systems for more than 30 years, with its systems being implemented in multiple industries. Indoor farming is no exception, as Ultimation has various systems to facilitate the manipulation of plants in indoor farming. For example, Ultimation uses a vertical format (i.e., hanging tower) or horizontal format (i.e., growing tray) to match the grower’s needs. Some of the systems promoted for indoor farming use traditional material handling devices such as roller conveyors, while others have been customized for the indoor agriculture industry, according to Kali.
“Our engineers understand the economics of indoor farming well and therefore our systems take into account the growth cycle. For example, the sections of the farms where plants are sitting still while growing require material handling systems that are very simple and affordable,” says Kali. “Once plants are grown then we recommend more sophisticated technologies and material handling systems like automated motorized conveyors and Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) stacker cranes that move them safely from point A to point B for ergonomically friendly harvesting.”
Choosing the right conveyor for your installation
According to Kali, the most common conveyor systems used in vertical farms are flow-rail or skate-wheel conveyors, while roller conveyors are commonly used in horizontal formats such as grow racks (as opposed to vertical towers). In both cases, the systems can be gravity flow or motorized. Also, the Ultimation team works closely with growers to answer all questions and determine which conveyor system is best suited to their needs.
As Kali explains, Ultimation’s conveyor systems are best suited to the production of leafy greens such as spinach, baby bok choy, arugula, micro broccoli and kale as these crops are quick to grow, compact and can withstand movement during production. Recognizing the need for conveyors for berries or vine crops, Kali notes that vertical format systems used in other industries, such as paint finishing or auto assembly, could be transferable to vertical farming or at least provide the basic framework.
High-quality materials, guiding plants from growth to harvest
To ensure that the systems are easy to clean, Ultimation uses materials made of galvanized steel, zinc-plated materials and powder-coated frames which are approved for food-grade applications and are easily cleaned. Further, Ultimation designs plastic system for hanging towers and growth pods, which are made of food-grade plastic when required.
“Ultimation’s material handling systems will normally take care of the movement of the product from the first growth stages all the way through until harvesting. We don’t manufacture harvesting or packing machines, but our conveyors will typically deliver products up to that point. Harvesting and Packing machines can be integrated with Ultimation’s equipment through the industrial communications network that we provide,” explains Kali.