The students in New Mexico State University’s Engineering Technology 305 course, Design for Manufacturing, learned more than engineering concepts this past semester. They gained experience with business, innovation, customer service, teamwork and leadership as well. And while they were at it, they may have come up with something that could significantly help the strawberry industry.

Under the tutelage of Engineering Technology Assistant Professor Luke Nogales, the students spent the spring semester developing an automated method for packaging strawberry plants. The existing process is primarily done by hand.

The project is the result of the College of Engineering Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center’s history of developing automation methods for New Mexico’s chile and agriculture industry. Working with the New Mexico Chile Growers Association, M-TEC engineers have developed machines to sort, thin and de-stem one of our state’s most important crops.

Anthony Hyde, director of M-TEC, thought agricultural engineering could be useful to other agricultural groups from around the country that had contacted M-TEC, one of which was Driscoll’s, the nation’s largest strawberry supplier.

“There is a nursery side of the business and a strawberry production side,” Hyde explained. “Growers start with live plants rather than seed. They need 30,000 plants per acre and in California there are more than 40,000 acres of strawberries grown in California, which equates to millions of strawberry plants that have to be boxed and delivered to farmers. Oregon and Florida are also strawberry producers.”

M-TEC received a contract to develop small bench-scale models to further automate the plant packaging process. The initial objective of the project is for M-TEC and the ET 305 class to demonstrate feasible concepts. If the designs do well, they would then be refined based on feedback from Driscoll’s, tested and validated at a processing facility.

M-TEC engineers had already been working on another strawberry plant nursery project for the industry.

Removing the flowering buds from strawberry plants helps propagate more daughter plants. Currently, people remove the buds by hand to prevent them from maturing into berries. M-TEC engineers developed a freezer that mimics nature. Initial testing shows that the freezer will kill the flower buds but not the plants.

“There are a lot of changes going on in the agricultural business,” Nogales said. “Strawberry farming is very labor intensive and it’s becoming harder for suppliers to find the necessary labor and there is an increasing cost associated with that labor.”

Nogales said the project is challenging because of the inconsistent shape and form of the strawberry plants. “We needed to develop something that could align, groom and orient the plants, but most importantly, count and package the plants. The expectation is that the automated method would be able to process plants as fast as the current method which is being performed by people.”