UP’s Engineering 4.0’s ‘smart avos’ key to determining impact of transportation conditions on agricultural products

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.”

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.

“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.”

Prof Wynand Steyn

June 11, 2021

  • Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes

  • Professor Wynand Steyn
    Professor Wynand Steyn is Chair of the School of Engineering and Head of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology. He has been involved in research at UP for the past 12 years.

    Prof Steyn believes that his field of research contributes to the betterment of society because it supports improvements in pavement engineering, transportation systems and user experiences of such facilities. This improvement of infrastructure that is used daily has a direct influence on people’s lives. Pavement engineering and related disciplines incorporate sensors for infrastructure, and monitors the behaviour and performance of pavements and related infrastructure.
    The professor is involved in research activities at Innovation [email protected] through supporting other faculties and institutes with data collection efforts on the larger Hillcrest Campus. He works mainly on pavement engineering, agricultural transportation and innovative sensors technologies for infrastructure monitoring.

    For Prof Steyn, various mentors in the early days of his career, mainly at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, contributed to developing his research interests. He regards these mentors as role models who were involved in his development as an academic and a researcher over a career that has spanned 31 years.

    A recent research highlight for him has been monitoring pavement-related effects on agricultural transportation. He’s written several articles on related aspects over the past two years. Ultimately, Prof Steyn hopes to improve infrastructure and the effect that it has on communities.

    He encourages young people who are interested in his field to read, observe, experiment, measure and learn from what they see around them. “Be inquisitive; ask questions; try stuff that has not been done before.”
    Outside of academia, Prof Steyn enjoys reading and photography. He also has a remote pilot licence.
    More from this Researcher

Related Gallery

Other Related Research

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2020. All rights reserved.