Automated cup attachment hailed

The development of a robotic automated cup attachment system - in a joint venture involving Dunedin-based Scott Technology - is being heralded as a significant breakthrough for the dairy farming industry.

The system, which has been developed in New Zealand over the past seven years, was presented by Scott Milktech Ltd to media and industry at a Rangitata dairy farm yesterday.

While the company had made a conscious effort to maintain a low profile, it was now ''struggling to keep the lid on it'' and it decided to disclose what it had been working on, chairman Murray King said.

It had kept its developments out of the public domain as far as possible until it had been confident it could provide a solution.

Mr King stressed it was not a product launch.

Rather, it was a technology update, and there was still work to be done before it was ready to take to the market.

The next stage was to run full production trials in more working dairy sheds, the aim being to start discussions with interested farmers to achieve a managed roll-out and sales of the product during 2013.

The company was working with other parties to commercialise it over the next 12 months, Mr King said.

Established in 2008 to develop and commercialise a robotic automated cup attachment system for milking dairy cows, Scott Milktech Ltd is a joint venture between listed company Scott Technology Ltd (61%) and privately owned company Milktech Ltd (39%).

Milktech, whose shareholders are dairy farmers John Fegan (Hamilton), John Wilson (Te Awamutu), who is also Fonterra chairman-elect, and Mr King (Nelson), started in 2005 looking for a way of attaching cups to cows on a rotary platform.

It later formed the joint venture with Scott Technology after working with ''a number of other companies'', Mr King said.

The basic mandate was to make the system to retro-fit into existing rotary dairy sheds and suitable for high-input pastoral-based operations.

The objective was to make the farmer's life easier and the value proposition was based primarily on labour savings.

While he would not disclose how much had been spent on the development, Mr King said it was ''many millions''.

The system consisted of an industrial six-axis robot linked to a 3-D time-of-flight camera which provided a 3-D co-ordinate and enabled the system to guide the cups on to each teat.

The system interfaced with the rotary platform and its associated systems, while a unique patented tail diverter also featured on the prototype system.

It was designed to operate without human intervention.

When asked how significant the development was for the dairy industry, Mr King said it was ''huge''.

For a long time, the industry had struggled to attract and retain quality labour.

The robot did not have a bad day, it was reliable and it did not sleep in, he said.

Cows were creatures of habit and liked things consistent and calm.

They produced more milk if they were satisfied and happy.

While Mr King was unable to say how much the system would retail for once on the market, he said normal farm payback would be three to five years, through labour replacement.

The development of the system was not as easy as they hoped, and it had taken longer than expected.

They started with the hardest part, which was attaching the cups to the cow.

For several years, the company has been working with the cows at a farm at Rangitata owned by Rangitata Dairies Ltd.

Five bails of the 80-bail rotary shed have been modified.

The focus was on two critical factors - accuracy, and getting four cups on every cow.

Speed of cupping was about 12 seconds per cow, with a 95% cupping success rate on first attempt.

It had been a good collaboration between engineering and animal expertise. What had helped was using people who understood technology, along with farmers who understood livestock, cow behaviour and farming systems, Mr King said.

Rangitata Dairies farm manager Rob Wilson described it as ''a frontier no-one ever thought we'd get through''.

He saw ''massive potential'' in the system, which he expected to be very successful once released in the market.

It freed up ''a whole lot of time'' that could be spent on tasks that added more value to the farming business.

It moved labour into a much more higher-skilled category.

The cows were relaxed, and he believed it would help the farm's productivity.