Researchers at the Engineering 4.0 facility of the University of Pretoria (UP) are conducting a project to determine damage suffered by fresh produce while being transported intercontinentally from the growers to the retailers. They are doing so by using artificial ‘avocados’, produced by means of ‘3D printing’ (more formally called additive manufacturing) and embedded with microsensors.
“This is a flagship project of Engineering 4.0 which focuses on smart transport, infrastructure and cities,” highlighted UP Civil Engineering Department head Professor Wynand Steyn. “The researchers have made use of the department’s unique smAvo and smaTO sensor platforms, which are used to monitor the entire value chain, from farm to fork.”
The artificial avocados are currently incorporated into a shipment of genuine avocados, on a ship proceeding from South Africa to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The project will then continue with the sensor-equipped artificial fruits being distributed to destinations throughout the European Union.
The 3D printed ‘avocados’ have water-resistant soft outer coverings, so that they can more accurately register the stresses and other conditions affecting the real fruits around them. Their sensor systems were developed using off-the-shelf components and microcontrollers. Their programming was specifically developed for this project. They are the product of an approach developed at UP and called, by the researchers, ‘civiltronics’. This combines civil engineering with additive manufacturing, electronics, computer science, programming, and the Internet of Things.
The sensor-equipped ‘fruits’ transmit data back to the Engineering 4.0 research facility. This data records the effects of the movement of the ship (pitch and roll), its acceleration, and the temperatures the produce is exposed to. The aim is to ascertain whether any or all these factors affect the fruit and its condition on its arrival at its destination.
“If you can’t measure the damage, you can’t manage it,” pointed out UP PhD student and project researcher André Broekman. “Real-time data on the ship’s location in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as weather conditions throughout the trip, is being sent to the University’s researchers at Engineering 4.0, where all the data will be captured on the Department’s central platform for analysis, interpretation and the recommendation of future action.”
This data will later be combined with satellite data on ocean wave height, wind speed and the ship’s course. This data should help determine where in the supply chain damage to the produce could occur. In turn, that could help in preventing or avoiding damage-causing events.