Conveyors and Vertical Farming
Vertical farming systems or “Controlled Indoor Agriculture” represents an opportunity to dramatically change the way we grow and distribute food. The technology is in a fast developing stage and promises to bring fresh, pesticide free foods to consumers wherever they live. The systems offer the potential for efficient food production 365 days per year regardless of the location.
Ultimation’s vertical farming technology is in use in various large-scale facilities across the United State the the Middle East. Although many farms use some forms of traditional automation and material handling industry conveyors and systems, we typically find that a substantial degree of customization is required to help the farms be economically efficient.
Understanding the economics of large scale vertical farming systems
We’ve worked with many of the leading players in the industry and we’re able to assist with early stage development work relating to the material handling systems, structural supports, drainage and other farm mechanical systems. Some key considerations for vertical farming conveyors are:
- Volume optimization is critical. Ultimation’s engineering are experts in helping you “squeeze more in” so that the capital costs of the equipment can be defrayed over the largest number of plants. Regardless of the growth format (i.e. horizontal or vertical) we can optimize the density through our use of 3D CAD, motion and simulation studies and FEA (Finite Element Analysis) of structural components. Every cubic inch (or centimeter) is important and can be otmimized. Supports for lights and drainage can be incorporated with conveyors and rack structures and the entire system can be optimized for strength, weight and cost.
- Traditional conveyors can be too costly. Providing motorized conveyor systems to cover tens of thousands of container or tower growth positions can be too capital intensive relative to the product value. Ultimation’s team understand the important economic differences and solutions required depending on the plant location in the farm. Plants that are being transferred to or fron harvest are often conveyed in higher speed, fully motorized conveyor and automation solutions. However plants that are in the grow locations often don’t need to move as often, and when they do move it needs to be on low cost solutions like gravity flow rails or other rolling but non-powered material handling products.
- Differential spacing can be important. As plants grow, they need more space. Where necessary Ultimation can accomodate this requirement in the design of the material handling system for the farms.
Indoor vertical farming is expected to grow to $9.7 billion worldwide by 2026 from $3.1 billion in 2021. The blend of the newer Agtech approaches to optimization of farming is one of the fastest developing new industries in the world.
Horizontal format or vertical format?
The diversity of approaches to large scale vertical farms includes the type of product, the growth system (aeroponic, hydroponic, etc) and the growth format. At Ultimation we call the two categories of growth format to be hoizonal or vertical format.
- Horizontal format farms typically use trays or other similar devices where plants grow upwards from they tray. The trays are moved by a material handling system that might include roller conveyors, belt conveyors vertical elevators and flow rail systems. These material handling systems enable the product to roll or be carried as and when required. Tray sizes can be small or range up to 5’x5′ or larger for mega-scale farms. Vertical optimization of the farm is achieved by loading stacks of tracks (or trays one by one into racks) with some farms reaching as high as 50 feet.
- Vertical format farms use hanging towers that hang from overhead conveyors or other overhead style material handling systems. Hanging towers may have plants growing from two or four sides, and be closely spaced during the early grow phases. Towers are typically made of engineering and food grade plastics materials. Robotic loading and unloading of the towers to and from the overhead conveyor is a common approach to handle the transition from floor level to overhead. Hanging tower style farms may have towers well in excess of 30 feet tall. Vertical farming conveyors in this format can be motorized or hand-pushed.
What are the Types of Conveyors Used in Indoor Agriculture?
Although no two farms are ever identical, here are some of the common types of conveyors and material handling systems used in vertical farms. We’ve ordered them from the simplest to the most sohpisticated:
- Flow rail or skate wheel conveyors. These are make from formed or stamped steel with the material typically being galvanized or powder coated steels. Flow rails have rollers mounted to the frame and sometimes have an additional set of wheels mounted at 90 degrees which act as side guides. The skate wheels can be plastic or zinc plated steel. They are mainly used in horizontall format grow systems.
- Gravity Roller Conveyors. Roller conveyors are simple, cost effective and enable the products to move under their own weight if properly set up at the correct decline angle. They are typically used with hoizontal format sytems that use trays, containers or totes.
- Belt Conveyors. Belt conveyors are typically used with horizontal format growth systems. They are available in both food grade and non-food grade alternatives. If they are specified as food grade both the belt material and the frames will have specific material requirements and also be able to be easily cleaned.
- Motor Driven Roller (MDR) Conveyors. These conveyors have an electric motor inside a conveyor roller and therefore the drive system for the conveyor is completely protected from contamination. The conveyor length is divided into appropriate zones with one or more product tray per zone, and each zone having its own motor, sensors and controllers. Rollers are connected via O-Ring or Poly-V ribbed belts. MDR systems provide farms with buffering capability to ensure a smooth flow of product to or from a harvesting room or operation.
- Vertical elevators. These are used to transport product from one level to another. They are mainly used for horizontal tray systems and individual elevators can achieve vertical transfers of up to 40 feet. Ultimation uses vertical lifters from Qimarox.
- Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS). These highly sophisticated material handling systems can traverse the front of a row of racks or alternatively traverse along the aisles between racks. Stacker cranes provide motion in two dimensions. Mechanisms mounted onto the carriage of an ASRS Stacker Crane can insert and remove products from a rack based storage system.
- Overhead conveyors. This style of material handlig system is common for vertical format grow systems used with vertical farming conveyors. Smaller systems may use hand-push beam trolley systems, while larger farms typically use motorized overhead conveyors or even the most sophisticated type being power and free conveyors.
Ultimation’s experience is that optimizing an indoor vertical farm requires extensive analysis to determine the best material handling system for your needs.
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Ultimation Food Grade Belt Conveyor Worksheet
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