The Robots are coming so you better eat your Brussel Sprouts

Posted by:

In my five part series on business leadership in turbulent times I want to turn my attention to technical change and the impact it is having TODAY. 

Sorting sprouts

One of my clients is in the automation industry, specifically they work with the machine vision technology that allows robotic automation to take place. 

Paul, the owner, showed me an application they had been involved in the development of. It was in a factory that process Brussel sprouts ready for retailers. Around thirty employees are employed in doing two simple operations on each sprout that passes through the factory. 

Firstly they check the sprout for its quality and remove any rotten or imperfect ones.

Secondly they trim the stalk off wth a knife before dropping the sprout back on the production line.

No biggy you might think. But when I tried to get my head around how you could automate this process I began to struggle. For one thing the Brussel sprouts are not uniform in size or shape and secondly as they get tipped ono the conveyor they will all be pointing and sitting in different positions. 

I understand how a robot arm could operate in an environment where every object that was presented to it was a certain dimension (that the technology knew) and delivered to the arm in a predictable way. But, how could the technology know whether a sprout was the right quality standard and figure out which way to orient it for cutting?

Thats where the machine vision systems come in, and once it was explained to me I had an insight as to just how this type of technology will change everything. 

Each sprout passes under a camera that captures an image of the sprout. The system is trained to look for a sequence of colours. The shape and colour of the leaves give a hint as to where the stem is located. The robot arm knows whether to dispose of the sprout or if it passes quality control exactly how to pick up the sprout and orient it to pass it through a water blade, which slices the sprout. 

Oh and if by chance it can’t match the sprout to an image it simply sends it round a loop where the sprout is agitated to re-orient it before passing it under the imaging system a second time.

The robots are coming

If this doesn’t blow your mind then you either need to re-read it, or I am a lot dumber than I thought. My thinking about the potential for technology was profoundly affected by this example. Since I learned about this application I have been literally looking differently at my clients businesses, imaging them in ten years from now. We all have to think differently.

It affects every business, including those that have historically been referred to as ‘professions’ and ‘trades’, long considered to be considered immune to automation. Oh and I include my work in that!!!

The growth of a business used to be about scaling up the team and scaling up processes, using computers to create system leverage. Going forward you should also be considering automation and systemisation much more seriously to improve both competitiveness and consistency. 

Oh, and if you are thinking that cost is the barrier then let me tell you that the payback on this project was achieved in less than one year. Seriously exciting stuff. 

If you are running a business this is not the time to be trapped in the engine room, focussed on keeping the operation working. If that is your day to day experience then it is time to get your business organised so you can be free to get out there and search for this wave before it engulfs you. 

You can find out more about Paul’s company here

If you are ready to really explore how to move yourself, your team and your company forward then you need to book yourself in to my ‘Breakfast and Breakthroughs’. You’ll get a much firmer grip on what it is you are truly shooting for and more importantly an understanding of what is really holding you back. Drop us an email and we will get in touch with all the details.