March 17, 2021

WG Automation Initiative: What it Means for Entrepreneurs and Startups

By Walt Duflock, Vice President, Innovation

On February 11, 2021, Western Growers announced the launch of the Global Harvest Automation Initiative (GHAI). This initiative will provide several benefits for entrepreneurs and startups. First, Western Grower is clearly indicating an intent to help solve the food security problems caused by decreasing labor availability and increasing labor costs. This will bring attention and resources to the space as investors and growers bring investment and field trial activity to help address the harvest challenges.

Second, one of the key pillars of the GHAI is developing a technology stack that will help startups launch and scale faster by commoditizing multiple layers of harvest automation technology. Think of the key components of harvest automation—artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms use imaging technology to direct the robot arm that places the end effector right where it’s needed to complete the harvest after it’s moved down the field rows by a tractor. Now think about how much faster the startup could get to market if they used industry standard options for some those layers. Use of existing tractor technologies and robot arm technologies can shave quarters or years off development cycles. Combine that with imaging libraries that allow startups to save time on product design. Added together across dozens of harvest startups working with more than one hundred specialty crops, the technology stack can save an incalculable amount of time on product development work.

Third, systems integration work will be provided to select startups that are showing early signs of market traction as part of the initiative. This will help startups leverage WG and partner resources to enable the integration work and allow them to focus on the key value-add areas like developing algorithms and end effectors. Once the startups have products and economics that are vetted, field trials will be scheduled with WG growers and WG will publish case studies so that growers can benefit from the trials of others.

Fourth, WG is developing a roadmap (market map) that will indicate which startups are performing well by specialty crop type. This visual will represent all startups in the harvest segment from development to field testing to in market and scaling. This will help raise awareness among growers of startups and the results they are delivering. This will increase the number of field trials and conversions of prospects to customers. The roadmap will be updated quarterly as we get the initial set of startups collected and analyzed, and will move to annual updates as the data set becomes more static. It will indicate changes in position for each startup with each update.

Finally, WG is going to build an impact analysis. This will focus on measuring the actual impact of harvest automation. How many acres of crops were able to get harvested because of harvest automation? How much of an incremental impact is harvest automation able to achieve annually, which will be the focus of each annual report. One of the keys to this exercise will be getting startups and growers to think about the automation solutions in a similar way so that the entire ecosystem can use a common set of metrics. Automation technologies like thinning and weeding have not historically gone back and measured the impact of their solutions but, starting in 2021, harvest will be measured, and an annual impact analysis will be published.

The GHAI will directly benefit two groups. For startups, commoditizing the technology stack and having systems integration resources available will accelerate time to market, scale, and the need for fundraising. For growers, the roadmap and impact analysis will help identify the startups that are in market with traction and help measure the impact of harvest automation annually. Finally, published case studies will help both groups—startup field trials will get published to a wide audience and growers will be able to review many case studies beyond the few they are able to participate in. This will raise overall awareness of real-world tests that went well for growers to help other growers decide which startups to consider when evaluating solutions.