SPREAD, a Japanese vegetable producer already has an indoor vertical farm operating today, which yields 21000 heads of lettuce a day. In addition to this existing plant production, the new “vegetable factory” – the Keihanna Plant will raise the total harvest up to 51000 units.

The future SPREAD’s Keihanna Plant                                                                                                                                                                                             Image credit : SPREAD company website

According to the Kyoto-based company, industrial robots will execute each task, including watering, trimming, harvesting and even transplanting the seedlings. The staff of just 25 workers will intervene only when it is time to plant the new seeds and through the germination process. The new factory, located within the Kansai Science City, Kyoto, will measure about 3500 m2 and it will house floor-to-ceiling shelves, where the vegetables will grow under LED light, R&D and testing facilities. Following the new trend in farming – the vertical indoor farming, SPREAD will be able to reduce the use and recycle up to 98% of the used water and harvest 30000 heads of lettuce every day. In comparison, a traditional field would yield about 25000-26000 units and only up to four crops per season. The new Keihanna Plant will also help to cut the energy use by 30% and the robots’ implementation will also diminish the labor costs by 50%. Subsequently, the fully automated process allows lower product prices, which could equal those of the lettuce from a regular field. SPREAD aims to construct more “vegetable factories” and develop further the processes in order to achieve a production of 500 000 lettuce heads per day. The new factory’s construction will begin in the summer of 2016 and the first shipments are expected in the autumn of 2017. The new plant will become reality because of the estimated sales of nearly ¥1 billion (which is approximately 7 922 000 €). The firm evaluates the local lettuce market to roughly ¥150 billion (nearly 1 188 300 000 €) and the global one as nearly 50 times bigger.
The Japanese company aims for a sustainable farming, which provides quality products. Their first indoor farm opened in 2007 and for the last ten years the firm already supplies approximately 2000 stores in the country. SPREAD’s concept of plant factory evolved continuously and it really could serve as an example of how the agriculture will implement more and more sophisticated machines and sensors, turning even today’s regular farms into sophisticated and connected cyber-physical systems. This is even truer for the vertical farming facilities, which are seen as a model for the future of the agriculture. Such type of farming allows efficient water recycling, waste reduction and water sterilization, but also ensures that the produce will be as natural as possible, as the factory is sealed. In this case there’s no need to use chemical products as pesticides and herbicides. The lighting could be provided by renewable energy sources. The vertical farming also has a very important feature-it is possible to grow food everywhere, thus permitting local production and further diminishing the farm’s carbon footprint. Protected from the elements and even from human contact, the vegetables will grow “happier”, enhancing the hygienic levels and even the plants’ taste.
The future water filtration system at the Keihanna Plant                                                                                                                                                             Image source : SPREAD company website

SPREAD will equip the new farm with a sophisticated system which will control the air humidity, the light, the temperature and the CO2 levels within the factory. The robots won’t have the expected humanoid form as they replace human labor. They will be conveyer belts which will have custom-made robotic arms attached. The robots will transplant the seedlings into grow beds and the sensors will help the system to monitor and adjust the environment in order to optimize growth. The system will survey and alert the human personnel when it is necessary to intervene and adjust the indoor environment. Such system is particularly useful while planting lettuce. Recently, some scientists even started questioning the farming of lettuce as it has very low nutritional value, compared to many other vegetables, while it uses enormous quantities of water and conventional production is a waste of farming space and precious resources.
While talking about replacing humans with robots, many could think that the machines will “steal” jobs. This isn’t entirely correct, as the machines, especially in this case will eliminate the low value-added human activity and will boost the creation of new jobs, which will also be more interesting. Instead of just planting seeds and adjusting the temperature, the workers will be able to concentrate on enhancing the existing sustainable farming methods, increase quality of produced vegetables and further reduction of the used resources. In Japan’s case, the automation is even highly desired, because of the country’s ageing population (40% of it is aged 55 and more) and the need of highly qualified personnel. The demographic reports aren’t favorable and the country’s population dwindles slowly, as there is a slight negative population growth.
On the other hand, the production automation is a well established trend and farm robotization just follows the example of how industrial manufacturers upgrade their factories in the pursuit of a more efficient production. Many companies from the automotive industry have renovated their production facilities, implementing cloud-computing networks, which connect the robots and the sensors. This ensures the exact working environment and a better tracking of processes and errors that could occur. SPREADs example of robotized farming shows at what level the ICT has penetrated each sector of the economy on a worldwide scale. According to the company, such food factories will be the first step towards a global environmental development and eventually, the cultivation in space.

A propos de Konstantin Kostov