11 June 2021 by Prof Wynand Steyn
Scientists at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Engineering 4.0 research facility are tracking the journey of 3-D-printed avocados on a ship from South Africa to the Netherlands. These avocados have microsensors and are part of a research project to determine damage to fresh produce that is being transported from producers to supermarkets.
According to Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, “This is a flagship project of Engineering 4.0 which focuses on smart transport, infrastructure and cities. 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.”
Prof Wynand Steyn and André Broekman holding the newest generation of instrumentation at the Engineering 4.0 research facility
He said many producers in South Africa face the challenge of ensuring that their agricultural products intended for the export market arrive at their destination unblemished. Furthermore, the products need to be suitable for further distribution and sale. “But sometimes damage to products leads to a loss for the producer.”
Prof Steyn said, “The department has experience in determining the impact of transportation conditions on agricultural products and optimising these conditions to ensure that products such as tomatoes and avocados arrive at the consumer in the best condition.”
To determine the damage on avocados, the UP researchers developed a concept known as “civiltronics”, which entails the combination of traditional civil engineering with electronics, the internet of things (IoT), programming, computer science and additive manufacturing (3D printing). The project involves monitoring the transportation by cargo ship of a consignment of avocados destined for Rotterdam in the Netherlands, from where it will be further distributed throughout the European Union.
Digital rendering of the smAvo enclosures and electronic components
“The avocados are 3D-printed with microsensors that send data back to UP’s Engineering 4.0 research facility, tracking the effects of accelerations in speed, rotational movements of the ship and temperature, as well as other elements of the ship’s behaviour, to determine whether this impacted on the produce itself and the condition in which it arrived at its destination.”
To optimise the data recorded during the transportation of the avocados, the team developed a measuring instrument with microsensors embedded in a number of 3D-printed avocados with a soft water-resistant outer covering that would be exposed to the same conditions as the real produce surrounding them.
This instrument was developed from “off-the-shelf” components and microcontrollers. It was programmed and customised for the objectives of this particular project so that live, real-time data could be collected and stored for analysis.
“If you can’t measure the damage, you can’t manage it,” said André Broekman, a PhD student working on the project.
“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,” he explained.
This data will later be linked to maritime data such as the height of the waves, wind speed and the direction in which the ship is travelling, which are obtained from satellite data. “This information is not just of value to producers to ensure that they can obtain top prices for South Africa’s best products, but also to avoid additional costs related to transporting products that have been damaged or are no longer suitable for trade in the export market back to South Africa,” he said. The data should assist in understanding where in the logistics chain damage potentially may occur, and therefore assist in eliminating events that may cause such damage.
“The University’s world-class research footprint entails focusing on digital information across a transdisciplinary platform,” said Prof Steyn. “The success of this project will therefore not be restricted to a single product or engineering discipline. Inherent in this innovative technology is the potential to apply it to other fields as well to promote the transdisciplinary research for which the University of Pretoria is so highly regarded.”