Case Study

Case Study: RoBoCut

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RoBoCut: How robots, AI and lasers are revolutionizing plant propagation (https://www.robotec-ptc.com/

For more than 100 years and already in its third generation, the family-owned company Bock Bio Science has been a leading global expert in in-vitro and horticultural plant propagation. The idea for RoBoCut, the automated, laser-based propagation of plants – reliable, cost-effective and sustainable – was born 10 years ago. Today, the owners Friederike and Stephan von Rundstedt lead a team of 14 experts and RoBoCut is the beginning of a new generation of plant propagation from 2022.

RoBoCut is the result of an elaborate, ten-year development phase. The idea behind the project: to automatically propagate sterile plants in the in-vitro laboratory. The process is quickly explained on paper: Detect and grasp, lay cutting lines, cut, pick up and place in fresh beakers. The RoBoCut system relies on a laser on a high-performance robotic arm instead of the usual scalpel. This allows a clean and highly precise cut for optimal propagation.

The cell with four Kawasaki robots primarily serves large in vitro laboratories worldwide. These employ thousands of people at specially equipped workbenches. The automation potential there is accordingly extremely large. But the solution is also aimed at growers and seedling producers.

How did the topic get started?

Bio Science is a classic plant and tissue culture laboratory – with the goal of automating propagation in the laboratory. Until now, this was primarily possible via work in low-wage countries. But Friederike and Stephan von Rundstedt were quickly certain: propagation should stay in Bremen, including the expertise and know-how. The journey began with the propagation of rare orchids. Initial discussions with automation partners around ten years ago initially resulted in mixed feedback: “Too complex, more than 40 decisions per minute at the workbench, no machine can do that,” Friederike von Rundstedt recalls of the responses. “With the advent of artificial intelligence, machine learning and image recognition, that changed slowly but surely,” adds the horticultural science graduate.

In the beginning, RoBoCut was only developed for Bock Bio Science itself, but after the first presentations, interest from outside grew rapidly. It quickly became clear that the solution should also be offered to competitors. In the future, the machines will be supplied to the former competition.

During a visit of Stephan von Rundstedt with an employee of the Hannover Messe, the first conversation took place at the booth of Kawasaki Robotics. There, they quickly got into conversation with the long-standing Kawasaki integrator DMP. The chemistry was there right away: Managing Director Franz-Josef Diekstall was enthusiastic about the idea from the start and was on board immediately. “You have to find someone who ticks like you and thinks ‘out of the box’ – and Mr. Diekstall was just as crazy as we were,” laughs Stephan von Rundstedt.

And the support from Kawasaki Robotics was also remarkable for him: “Kawasaki’s willingness to provide us with a loaner robot for tests and initial prototypes in an uncomplicated manner was a great help, especially at the beginning of the project – this allowed us to quickly gain momentum and confidence.”

How is the cell structured?

The RoBoCut system is a fully sterile cell equipped with one RS007L and three RS007N high performance robots from Kawasaki Robotics. Cups containing plants to be propagated are fed in via an infeed. These are opened and a single plant at a time is removed by a robot with a mechanical gripper and presented to an image recognition system – where the plant is precisely detected within 0.3 seconds and the cutting lines defined.

The plant is then transferred to the so-called laser chamber, where it is divided according to the laid cutting line. This is where the actual automatic propagation takes place: The laser divides the plant into individual shoots, which are placed on a sterile conveyor belt. From there, they are grabbed by another robot and placed in a new cup with fresh agar-agar culture medium. The cup is closed and leaves the machine via the outfeed. Automation with RoBoCut allows contactless handling of the plants in the sterile room – without human contact.

The RoBoCut system is a fully sterile cell equipped with one RS007L and three RS007N high performance robots from Kawasaki Robotics. Cups containing plants to be propagated are fed in via an infeed. These are opened and a single plant at a time is removed by a robot with a mechanical gripper and presented to an image recognition system – where the plant is precisely detected within 0.3 seconds and the cutting lines defined.

The plant is then transferred to the so-called laser chamber, where it is divided according to the laid cutting line. This is where the actual automatic propagation takes place: The laser divides the plant into individual shoots, which are placed on a sterile conveyor belt. From there, they are grabbed by another robot and placed in a new cup with fresh agar-agar culture medium. The cup is closed and leaves the machine via the outfeed. Automation with RoBoCut allows contactless handling of the plants in the sterile room – without human contact.

The advantage of the laser over conventional scalpels: A laser beam has only a quarter of the thickness of a scalpel in comparison. The cut is absolutely precise, fast and causes no damage to the plant. Combined with the system’s image recognition, the laser can also cut precisely along the natural growth line. The result: significantly better growth in the new plants, as they can immediately absorb nutrients more intensively.

Although RoBoCut was initially developed for the difficult-to-reproduce Phalaenopsis orchids, the system is also suitable for the propagation of numerous other plants – including ornamental plants, woody plants, perennials or nutritionally relevant plants such as potatoes. However, RoBoCut will also be used outside plant and tissue culture – in vegetative propagation – in the future. This is particularly relevant for cuttings producers, such as eucalyptus, street trees, bedding and balcony plants and much more. Several other crops will follow in the next few years. For example, there have already been some inquiries about the propagation of medicinal cannabis – a market with enormous growth prospects.

Artificial intelligence defines perfect cutting lines

Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a key role at RoBoCut: In addition to the four controllers for the robots, three industrial PCs and an AI server are installed. 16 cameras provide the necessary input for the vision recognition software. The AI is used in almost every step of the process, such as post-removal recognition. Based on these images, a 3D model is generated, on which the cutting lines are defined using AI. Before the laser cut is made in the next step, the plant is recorded again and the 3D model is aligned – so any displacements during transport can be easily compensated for.

The final challenge in the process: removing the correct plant parts from the assembly line in the appropriate position and placing them in the agar-agar medium. By using AI, the robot receives the exact information to sort out unwanted plant parts and precisely remove and place the correct offshoots.

Focus on sustainability and environmental protection

For Friederike von Rundstedt, the factors of environmental protection and sustainability were in the foreground right from the start: “With one unit, we can replace up to ten sterile workbenches and save energy. This also makes on-site production worthwhile, and emissions from thousands of air miles to favorable production countries are avoided.” The rapid and healthy growth of the precisely cut plant cuttings also significantly reduces the use of pesticides in the downstream production process.

With more than five billion plants produced in vitro and an annual growth rate of twelve percent, the global demand is enormous. “RoBoCut is a solution that is urgently awaited on the market,” adds Stephan von Rundstedt. In the future, plants that are not yet produced in vitro can be produced using the same method – locally, sustainably and always with consistent quality. RoBoCut is thus making an active contribution and looking to the future: the RoBoCut team is already looking into the question of which processes in plant processing can be additionally automated

Subsidies, prizes and a look into the future

The road to RoBoCut was not always easy due to the high level of complexity – especially in terms of AI and software, a complete reboot was even necessary in the meantime. “But despite all the challenges, we are now at a point where we can say: It’s going. It is no longer a question of ‘if’, but when we go public,” Stephan von Rundstedt proudly reports.

The German Federal Ministries of Research, Agriculture and Economics recognized the potential of the solution early on and supported the project with funding.

The project has already made waves: In 2018, RoBoCut won the TASPO Award, an important innovation prize in the green industry.

Numerous leading international plant breeders contacted Bock Bio Science and viewed the prototype on site in Bremen. In 2019, the Bremen Environmental Prize was also awarded to the RoBoCut project – further encouragement for the entrepreneurial couple.

An initial preview video on LinkedIn in 2019 exceeded the von Rundstedts’ expectations even further – more than 12,000 views and more than 1,000 very specific inquiries showed the entrepreneurs the level of interest in the market.

In the future, RoBoCut can also play a decisive role in cushioning the economic effects of an exceptional situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic: for example, the supply of young plants from producing countries was massively restricted during the pandemic – resulting in significantly higher prices and poor availability. “We hope to be able to initiate a turnaround with the system: It has to be worthwhile again to produce locally,” explains Friederike von Rundstedt.

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