Press release | 7.5.2019
Munich, 7 May 2019 – The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Dutch engineers Alexander van der Lely and Karel van den Berg have been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 as finalists in the category "Industry" for their fully automated milking system that benefits animals and farmers.
Their system is being commercialised worldwide by the family business van der Lely runs as CEO and where van den Berg is Director of Innovations. Today, it has become a market leader in automated systems for dairy farmers and works with farmers in over 40 countries.
"The system developed by two Dutch inventors demonstrates how high-tech advances can sustainably assist the agricultural sector," said EPO President António Campinos about their nomination as finalists for the European Inventor Award 2019. "And they have enhanced market uptake by licensing their technology, building a company that is competitive on a global stage."
The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.
Global demand for dairy products is growing steadily, but conventional milking can be stressful for cows because it is the farmer, and not the animal, that decides when it is time for milking. Together, Dutch inventors Alexander van der Lely and Karel van den Berg are driving a new approach to the dairy business, one that focusses on "cow-friendly" automation and making farming operations more efficient.
Van den Berg studied electrical engineering in Rotterdam but grew up on a farm and knew that for robotic milking to be successful, it would need to be accepted by the cows as being part of the barn. "I started from the principle that the cow needs freedom within the milking pen; it should not be fixed or restrained," he says, adding that "when a cow feels good, has no stress and is offered everything – that's when it produces the most milk."
The key feature of van der Lely and van den Berg's invention is that it allows cows to wander into the milking pen when they are ready to be milked. It resembles a large box with metal bars on one side, and a robotic arm underneath the cow controls the entire milking process. The arm houses sensors that ensure the milking machine is locked onto the cows' udders seamlessly, so that they can be milked efficiently. The scanning technology also eliminates unnecessary arm movements for gentler handling of the cow. This system is called the Astronaut as the cows are connected to high-tech machinery but still remain free, similar to an astronaut on a spacewalk.
The Astronaut's use goes beyond milking as it provides farmers with a valuable tool for data collection and analysis. The system scans a collar on the cow and stores relevant data, such as her milk production and feeding habits. This data is then fed into a software programme where it is analysed, helping farmers monitor and manage their herds more efficiently - for example, giving an early warning if a cow might be sick.
In 1985, Karel van den Berg and his team of engineers began developing the robotic milking system. One year later, Alexander van der Lely's father filed patent applications for the first two milking inventions, one of which is still in use in the current system. Alexander van der Lely studied production and management engineering in Zurich before joining the family-run business in 1995, when he was tasked with improving the technical performance of the robotic milking system. Although the earliest Astronaut systems were commercially available in the mid-90s, van der Lely recalls that agribusiness was initially reluctant to use these robots. "One reason why this innovation took a long time to market was because we developed the machine to be operational 24 hours a day which is a huge leap in managing a farm. We also needed the time to convince farmers that this automation was the way forward and to build up the necessary service network."
Today, the company van der Lely runs as CEO and where van der Berg is Director of Innovations is a pioneer in the robotic milking: Van der Lely has been named as an inventor on 47 European patents for advances in milking and agricultural automation, and over his 35-year career, van den Berg has been named as an inventor on 267 European patents, many of which have equivalents in other territories too. Some 25 of these patents he shares in common with Alexander van der Lely.
To accelerate market uptake of the automated milking systems, Lely says the company also licences its technology to competitors. "Patents are very important to us for two reasons: to protect our ideas, of course, but also – if an invention is still brand new – to open up the market for it. Then we're happy to give someone a license, and we can then enter the market together," says van der Lely. This strategy has helped the company to grow its business in an expanding sector that is expected to grow from EUR 1.06 billion in 2016 to EUR 2.2 billion by 2023 because the adoption of automatic systems brings various benefits such as low dependence on manual labour and increased milk yields due to more frequent milking. The company continues to dominate the industry with around 30 000 Lely Astronauts currently being used to milk cows in farms around the world.
This success is largely due to the animal-centric approach and greater operational efficiency for the farmer that van der Lely and van den Berg put at the heart of the milker, which has been shown to increase milk production: a farm with 120 cows can achieve an extra production capacity of more than 1 kg per cow per day when milking is done twice a day using the Lely Astronaut compared with conventional methods. The company estimates that the initial cost of purchasing its latest milking system is recovered in only 2-3 years thanks to better milk production and healthier, happier cows.
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, it honours individual inventors and teams of inventors whose pioneering inventions provide answers to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury consisting of international authorities from the fields of business, politics, science, academia and research who examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social development, economic prosperity and job creation in Europe. The Award is conferred in five categories at a ceremony that will this year take place in Vienna on 20 June. In addition, the public selects the winner of the Popular Prize from among the 15 finalists by online voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 16 June 2019.
With nearly 7 000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening cooperation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
Additional information, photos and videos about the European Inventor Award 2019 can be found in the EPO Media Centre. Smart TV users can download our app "Innovation TV" and watch videos about all finalists on their TV screen. The award ceremony on 20 June 2019 will be broadcast live on Innovation TV, the EPO website and the EPO's Facebook page.
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