The robot-manned farm is capable of harvesting 30,000 heads of lettuce every day.
BY GAIL BARNES
Vertical growing systems with lighting supplied by LEDs were among the exhibits at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show’s Eureka Park – a specialised exhibit area that provides start-ups a unique exhibiting opportunity to launch a new product, service or idea.
The CES exhibit was a small-scale example of the kind of “plant factories” that are already making an appearance, for example that of Spread in Japan with their “Vegetable Factory” – the world’s first farm manned entirely by robots. Instead of relying on human farmers, the indoor Vegetable Factory will employ robots that can harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce every day.
According to Spread: “In recent years, there have been voices of concern regarding food shortages due to the growth of the global population and the deterioration of the environment throughout the world. There are also concerns about the impact of global climate change on agriculture. We are seeking agricultural solutions to address food shortages and problems in the global environment, not only for Japan, but for the people of the world. We feel that innovation from a new perspective is an important step in sustainable farming to ‘connect’ us to the next generation. We have taken a step toward sustainable farming by creating an innovation that ‘produces vegetables, that are not influenced by climate, and can be built anywhere in the world’ called the plant factory.”
Construction of Spread’s fully automated large-scale lettuce factory is said to begin in early 2016 with a production target of 30,000 heads of lettuce per day. According to Spread, there are six stages to growing a lettuce at a factory: seeding, germination, raising the seedlings, transplanting them into a larger bed, raising the vegetable and harvesting. The company said it is still working on a machine that can handle the seeding process. And it still requires human eyes to confirm germination. Beyond that, every process is automated, it says.
Stacker cranes will carry the lettuce seedlings and hand them over to robots which will take care of transplanting them. Once fully grown, they will be harvested and delivered automatically to the factory’s packaging line. The automated process will not only handle the lettuce but also control the temperature, humidity, level of carbon dioxide, sterilization of water and lighting hours, the company said.
Spread has seven years of experience in growing lettuce in its factories, with the produce being sold in 2,000 stores in Japan. While the lettuce is sold for about the same price as that grown in regular farms today, the company hopes to bring down costs. It says the factory lettuce tastes the same as lettuce grown outdoors.
Spread’s Vegetable Factory follows the growing agricultural trend of vertical farming, where farmers grow crops indoors without natural sunlight. Instead, they rely on LED light and grow crops on racks that stack on top of each other. In addition to increasing production and reducing waste, indoor vertical farming also eliminates runoff from pesticides and herbicides — chemicals used in traditional outdoor farming that can be harmful to the environment.
The new farm, set to open in 2017, will be an upgrade to Spread’s existing indoor farm, the Kameoka Plant, which currently produces about 21,000 heads of lettuce per day with help from a small staff of humans. Spread’s new automation technology will not only produce more lettuce, it will also reduce labour costs by 50%, cut energy use by 30%, and recycle 98% of water needed to grow the crops.
Driven by reasons of space, sustainability and food safety, plant factories seem to be a trend that is likely to grow, literally as well as figuratively!
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020