An Automated Picking Solution

Mycionics CEO Michael Curry and company founder Murray Good with the firm's robotic harvesting system. | Photo by Mike Strathdee

Robots address labor shortage in mushroom industry

Twenty years ago, Murray Good started investigating using robotics to augment the labor supply at his mushroom farm near Putnam in southern Ontario. Finding enough reliable mushroom pickers, who are paid by the pound, was an issue then. Hiring and retaining workers continues to be a challenge, for Canadian and US growers alike. “There’s about a 20 percent labor gap, and a 40 percent labor turnover, and it takes three to six months to train someone,” said Michael Curry.

Curry is CEO of Mycionics, the robotic mushroom picker company that Good founded. The company will ship its first 46 systems to buyers in British Columbia and the Netherlands this spring, after more than a decade of research, development, trial and error. Mushrooms are delicate, prone to bruising if touched improperly. Bruising degrades the product quality and value. “Quality is the number one thing,” Curry said. “There’s no point in picking it and damaging it. That was the number one, first focus (for the robotic pincers), to mimic how the humans are grabbing the mushrooms.”

An early Mycionics product picked mushrooms of a consistent size without damaging them. But it was only picking 10 mushrooms a minute. That system cost three times as much as the new version, which picks over three times as many mushrooms. “Because of the space and unique requirements of these mushroom farms, there’s no such thing as off-the-shelf technology to do it,” Curry said. A customized gripper that feels like a rubberized finger pulls mushrooms from a growing bed at a rate of 30 to 44 mushrooms a minute. That’s the same rate at which an experienced human can pick. The gripper puts the mushrooms in a disc. Then the stems are evenly trimmed, and the product is automatically packed.

Robotic mushroom picker photo courtesy Mycionics

The robotic system has a few advantages compared to human pickers. First, it can cut each stem to the same length, with a straight cut. That consistency can be lacking in people who are paid to work quickly. The three-dimensional machine vision cameras ensure that the robotic finger picks only mushrooms at exactly the size retailers want, a 55-millimeter (about 2.2 inch) cap size. Picking the perfect size is not easy. Mushrooms grow quickly, as much as 4.2 percent per hour. “You need the people there to pick at the precise time,” Good said. “Mushrooms don’t stop growing if you have 10 percent of people who don’t show up (for their shift) in a day, which is … not unheard of.”

Good thinks the data growers get from the machine vision system will be even more valuable than the robotic picking itself. Data provided by the Mycionics system senses the microclimate in which mushrooms are growing. The system measures carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity and pressure. This information will allow growers to use less space in their growing bed. It will help them adjust or reduce their use of inputs, and get more mushrooms, he said.

Having mushrooms picked at their optimal size could increase overall grower yield by seven percent, Curry said. The Mycionics system sells for $150,000. It will pay for itself in labor savings within two years. That payback estimate does not include the better profit margins growers will enjoy from their improved yields. Mycionics’ current product came about through work with a partner in the Netherlands. The Christiaens Group is the largest supplier of equipment to the global mushroom industry.

Christiaens has developed a new style vertical farm called a drawer system. A traditional farm has a two-bed system using wooden pallets. The newer, more efficient aluminum equipment designed by Christiaens can be up to seven levels high. It allows the beds to come to the mushroom pickers, rather than the other way around. Mycionics will focus on Canadian and European markets for the time being. That may seem odd given that the US produces more than three times as many mushrooms as Canada.

Still, Canada is the eighth largest mushroom producer in the world. Canada ‘s 264 mushroom farms grow over 300 million pounds of mushrooms a year. About 45 percent of this production is exported, almost all of it to the US. US growers produce over 965 million pounds annually. But most US mushrooms are grown on old wooden beds, Good said. “They don’t have the systems… that we can adapt on.”

That will change as urban mushroom farms, particularly in Pennsylvania, home to half of the US’s production, move to rural areas and adopt new technology, he said.

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