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Capstone: A Good Investment for a Farmer

Each year, various BYU Engineering students complete a Capstone project that benefits businesses and other organizations. Gold Family Farms has continued to return to this program to request new innovations for automating their farm.

Throughout each day, Gold Family Farms employees would spend time moving plants out of one pot, into the next, and onto the trailer. This manual labor might not seem unusual for the industry, but Gold Family Farms decided that these employees could contribute more than constantly relocating plants. So, when President/CFO and BYU Alum Steve Gold received another annual email about hiring a Capstone team, he decided to respond.

Gold Family Farms grows on over 300 acres in Hillsboro, Oregon, providing quality plants to independently owned garden centers, landscapers, and wholesalers in the United States and Canada. With three generations of experience in the industry, the family business had already grown tremendously in wholesale and modern production by including automation into their nursery. In 2020, Gold Family Farms discussed how academia could help them solve other problems with more automation.

Due to a shop fire in August 2021, the implementation of Capstone's innovations has been delayed. However, Gold Family Farms looks forward to incorporating the machines into their systems soon.

Originally, employees had to repot the plants and move them onto a trailer bed, which required more time and effort than ideal. To change this, Gold first requested that a Capstone team of engineering students innovate a machine that could do the final step: move the repotted plants onto the trailer. After the team succeeded in designing a device that could do this, Gold requested that another Capstone team innovate a machine and automate the repotting step.

From 2021 to 2022, a team of five seniors in various engineering majors spent their final year at BYU making this possible. Working mainly in mechanical and computer engineering areas, the team needed a machine that could not only function correctly but could do so in various weather conditions. After brainstorming for a few weeks, they had created a design and listed the materials needed to accomplish their plan.

Then, the problems came––ones that didn’t normally show up in homework or class. Shipping delays prevented the team from receiving essential parts and delayed their progress. Yet, when the parts did arrive, more issues tagged along with them. While some students and engineers might curse interferences, the team saw the benefits of their difficulties.

“We've dealt with design problems, we've dealt with manufacturing problems, we've dealt with component problems and electrical problems,” Computer Engineering alum Lorena Iannicelli said, “and all this debugging and problem solving is super valuable because that's what you're going to do as an engineer.”

According to Gold, the small investment in Capstone has given great rewards. While Gold Farms had hired professionals for help in the past, the resulting machines had led to disappointment and failure. The designs were often based on an idea of one engineer, unlike the designs created by Capstone’s collaborative process. Gold discovered that due to Capstone’s reliance on teamwork and mentorship, the teams could produce better prototypes. Because BYU could supply resources, connections, and knowledge in sync with the most recent technology changes, Gold received more reliable results.

Gold Family Farms promotes the power of automation, showing that incorporating engineering into their industry has increased efficiency. Since they can produce more with less longterm cost effects, this allows them to offer plants at lower prices as well.

Implementing these Capstone innovations will increase Gold Farms' production efficiency and capabilities. Despite the increase in pace and demand, the automated system will require fewer employees working on physical labor tasks and open up their opportunity to work on more intellectually stimulating assignments.

“We care about using industry and knowledge to better the work environment that we’re in. I think it will show employees that we care about them…” Gold said, “About who they are and what their job means to the company.”

Gold plans to continue to return to Capstone for assistance in creating the final devices for making this change possible. To help him incorporate the new technology, Gold hired Mitchell Jacobson, recent Capstone participant, who showed great enthusiasm for the project and automation process.

Each student finished their Capstone project with more real-world, hands-on experience in the innovation process. Together they learned how to synergize and overcome any difficulties in design, functionality, and uncontrollables. As these seniors move away from campus and out into the world, they leave more prepared to enter their engineering careers and contribute.

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