by Amber

Hydroponic Robot Farming Goes Live

This is it. We’ve arrived in the future… where even farm workers can be replaced by robots. Spread, a hydroponic produce company in Japan, breaks ground on the first fully automated indoor farm in the world this spring. Market growers in that part of the world are fond of calling their operations a ‘vegetable factory’ – but these guys take it to an entirely new level. And they’re on a mission to put robot farming everywhere.

They are seasoned indoor farmers with a penchant for large scale production. Spread’s first production facility opened in 2007 in Kameoka, Kyoto. At the time, it was the largest indoor lettuce in the world, turning out 21,000 heads a day. As anyone who’s been in hydroponics for a while knows, there have been changes and improvements since then. But Spread adapted their original systems to overcome issues their business model presented. There was a lot of trial and error the first 6 years the Kameoka Plant was in operation. Two years ago they redesigned everything, arriving at what they say is the perfect vegetable factory setup. Having crossed that hurdle, planning for a second plant began – one that would produce more at a lower cost.

The new lettuce factory will be built in Kansai Science City on the border of Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara Prefectures. The new production model is said to be the most advanced in the world, and make it possible to harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce a day with only 25 employees. A whopping 10.9 million plants a year produced with 50% less labor than the Kameoka Plant. Robots will do all the cultivation, but they still need human workers for the seeding and germination stage, system adjustments, and packing and shipping. Machines and robots fully automate the entire cultivation and harvest processes, but cannot successfully transfer the fragile freshly germinated seedlings… yet. Give them time and more advanced technology, and they’ll figure out how to grow salmonella-free lettuce even cheaper.

But this is just one way they’ve found to reduce production costs.

One of the biggest costs of indoor farming is energy input, with grow lighting being responsible for a lot of it. Spread started out with LEDs though, so one might wonder how they can reduce energy costs without starving their plants for crucial light energy. They say their lights are specially designed in-house that are more efficient, made just for the plant factory situation, and significantly reduces the amount of energy used to run their lighting. This alone cuts their energy costs by 30%.

Hydroponics produces food with a small fraction of the water the same crops take grown in soil, but Spread has reduced water input to a much greater degree. They designed a new water circulation system that allows the reuse of what the plants haven’t absorbed from the nutrient reservoirs. Recycling waste water through filters and sanitizing mechanisms. Their Kameoka Plant uses 0.826 liters to produce a single head of lettuce. Far less than the 10.7 liters that growing lettuce in soil requires, but the new Vegetable Factory hydroponic system can produce that head of lettuce using only 0.11 liters. This reduces the cost of water input by 86%, and increases the sustainability of their agricultural model.

Further improvements that increase production efficiency is the design of a new environmental control system that optimizes humidity, CO2, and temperature for large area growing. This has made controlling crop development easier on a huge scale, and harvest quality more consistent.

Spread’s first harvest out of the new Vegetable Factory in Kizugawa will be in markets by fall. The 51,665 square foot (4,800 m2) facility will cost about $16.7 million (£10.8 million) to build, including the cost of research and equipment. This gives them 1.18 acres of farm space where lettuce will be on floor to ceiling vertical growing racks. Their total annual output will jump from 7.7 million to 18.6 heads lettuce annually.

Their pesticide-free lettuce with higher beta-carotene content than any other lettuce available is sold in 2,000 stores in Japan under the Vege-tus brand, and planning for future facilities at home and internationally are already in the works. The global lettuce market 50 times larger than the 150 billion yen value it has in Japan. Spread has their goals set at claiming a much bigger piece of the pie now that their system is extremely efficient, and their lettuce offers extra health benefits. They’ve already got partnership models drawn up, whether they build the plant and the partner runs it for a share in the profit, or they buy the knowledge and technology and run it on their own. The beta-carotene rich lettuce can be included in the deal, or not.

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The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.