Last November an impressive milestone was reached in Dairy automation. The 12,500th Lely Astronaut milking robot was produced at our factory in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The history of the Astronaut is a story that is just as impressive as the milestone itself. The development of what would later be called ‘the most important invention of the 20th century for dairy farmers’ started in 1985. It was clear right from the start that the milking robot would have to be installed amongst the cows.
The birth of the Astronaut
Karel van den Berg and René Fransen, both of them involved right from the start of the development, remember the prerequisites very well: “The cows need to visit the robot of their own accord and there should be as few barriers as possible.” To ensure a highly flexible connection between the teat cups and the ‘solid world’ the designers opted for a cord. Cornelis van der Lely, one of the founders of the Lely Group, raised the idea to call the milking robot ‘Astronaut’. This is also because the teat cups are connected − through an umbilical cord, as it were, with the ‘mother ship’, i.e. the milking robot proper.
First robots sold
It took about four years to develop the final prototype. In 1989 this resulted in the construction of an autonomously operating robot whereby the milking technique itself still was standard. Testing was done at the Engineering department using real livestock. Late 1992 the second prototype of the milking robot was installed on a dairy farm. First of all, a so-called zero-series was set up and in 1994 no fewer than twelve milking robots were installed. Anyone can easily imagine that it was quite a challenging job to sell these very first units. Every possible effort was made to reassure potential customers about paying a large amount of money for a totally unknown and unproven product, from a company without a dairy background. Be that as it may, the first twelve Astronaut robots were sold within six months.
Production was started in 1995 and late 1997 approximately 100 robots were operational. The first robots were only available as galvanized models. As from 1997 there was a choice of different models: Left hand or Right hand as well as stainless steel robots. The Lely Astronaut milking robots that were introduced in 2000 featured the MQC (Milk Quality Control) sensor block and in 2001 the option of a weighing device was introduced as well.
In 2005 the Lely Astronaut A3 milking robot was launched. This model includes a number of technical improvements, e.g., an internal CAN protocol as well as Ethernet plus the Lely management system Time for Cows (T4C). The main revolutionary feature of the Lely Astronaut A4 (introduced in 2010) is the walkthrough design under the name I-flow. Furthermore, the Astronaut A4 is the first robot setup in a modular concept: a central unit features a vacuum and cleaning system for up to two robot units. Obviously, development never stops and Lely keeps exploring every avenue with a view to further improvement and optimization.
Be sure to visit LelyLife.com again next week as we talk about the longest running Lely Astronaut in North America.