Shearing handpiece to get smart

Director Will Mitchell with Product Design Engineer Katherine Moriarty from 4C Design, which is developing a prototype smart shearing handpiece. 4C Design’s prior work includes the development of the Numnuts® hand tool (pictured behind).

AWI is working with a design company to develop and construct a proof of concept prototype of a smart shearing handpiece. The new semi-automated handpiece, if successfully created and commercialised, has the potential to make shearing available to less experienced operators while increasing animal welfare.

The mechanical shearing handpiece has remained relatively unchanged since its development in the late 1800s. While equipment suppliers have made incremental improvements over the years, a design and engineering company from Scotland, 4c Design, has recently identified an opportunity for fundamental change.

AWI has teamed up with 4c Design to design a new generation of shearing handpiece that incorporates the latest automation technology.

“Advancements in materials, manufacturing methods and sensing technology make this a timely moment to reconsider the fundamental process of shearing wool,” said 4c Design Director, Will Mitchell.

“Using new automation technology, we have identified an opportunity to redesign the device in a way that would de-skill and de-risk the currently difficult and complex shearing process.”

With shearers sometimes being hard to find (despite AWI’s training efforts), a semi- automated method of shearing would open up wool harvesting to a new workforce by making shearing easier. Additionally, given animal welfare is a high priority to the industry, the smart handpiece aims to deliver a humane and high-quality shear with less chance of skin cuts.

DESIGNING THE SMART HANDPIECE PROTOTYPE

4c Design is working with AWI and consulting with Heiniger, shearing experts and sheep farmers (in Australia and the UK) to generate several potential concepts from which the most promising will be selected, developed, tested and refined. Research into ‘parallel products’ used in other industries for cutting are also being explored.

At the end of the six-month project, 4c Design aims to have designed and constructed a proof of concept prototype of the smart shearing hand tool. It will have been tested by experienced shearers to assess its performance on a purpose-built test rig (rather than sheep at this stage) and 4c Design will report back to AWI on the design’s development, the test results and feedback from stakeholder engagement. 4c Design will also define a clear route for onward development and commercialisation.

“The key area we are looking at in this new project with AWI is the shearing head of the handpiece,” Will explained.

“An adaptation of a handpiece head to the contours of a sheep’s body would increase the feasibility of a semi-autonomous method of shearing. In time, and most likely through a series of complementary steps, it could lead to a fully autonomous robotic system.”

The smart shearing hand tool will be designed so that it can be introduced simply into existing wool shed infrastructure.

DESIGN CRITERIA FOR THE SMART HANDPIECE

4c Design is designing the proof of concept prototype with the aim of providing confidence that the final design solution will be capable of delivering the following animal welfare and user impacts:

  • Substantially reduce, or eliminate, the risk of skin cuts to the sheep.
  • Provide feedback to the shearer, enabling them to track activity and improve technique.

4c Design will also work towards the following desired impacts:

  • Provide a method for working over sharp changes in contours of the sheep’s body.
  • Remove by other means the requirements for stretching the skin of the sheep.
  • Decrease the amount of maintenance required for the tool.
  • Allow for adjustment to the length of wool removed.
  • Allow the wool to be removed in a single fleece, reducing the frequency of second cuts.
  • Consider digital integration for a more autonomous system.

STRONG TRACK RECORD

Although based in Glasgow, far away from the sheep paddocks and yards of Australia, 4c Design has a strong track record of innovation and commercialisation in the sheep farming sector, with specific expertise in mechanism and hand tool development, which is highly relevant to this project.

4c Design’s prior work includes the development of the Numnuts® hand tool that provides pain relief when lamb marking with rings, the Barbervax® bottling machine that enabled large quantities of vaccine to be produced commercially to protect sheep against barber’s pole worm, and the TagFaster automatic ear tag applicator.

Another very different ‘hand-held’ object developed by the team at 4c Design was the Queen’s Baton used for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, which passed through many thousands of hands during its 190,000km relay across 70 nations. Let’s hope that this new project results in a product that ultimately ends up in as many hands.

This article appeared in the March 2020 edition of AWI’s Beyond the Bale magazine. Reproduction of the article is encouraged, however prior permission must be obtained from the Editor.

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