The Robots Are Coming ... For the Farms
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if a food shortage hits, we’ll be glad to have farms like this around.
By Sanjena Sathian
OZY and Predix from GE — the cloud-based development platform built for industry — have partnered to bring you an inside look at the future of digital industries, where people, data and productivity meet.
Just minutes outside the city limits of Kyoto, Japan, the farmland begins. It’s lush, dotted with healthy paddy fields, halcyon against a mountain vista. Continue as far as Kameoka and you reach the place where the farmlands may end. Not because the horizon halts, but because a certain small factory, situated within these nearly neon green fields, is using water, artificial light and, soon, robots to take over agriculture.
The factory belongs to SPREAD, a Japanese company run by an ambitious and unlikely CEO, 56-year-old Shinji Inada. SPREAD was the subject of splashy press earlier this year when Inada announced plans for an automated factory by 2017. For now, SPREAD produces 21,000 heads of lettuce daily using vertical farming techniques; rather than a greenhouse, it utilizes hydroponics and fluorescent or LED lighting. Its expansion plans are huge — around 20 factories that will produce half a million heads of lettuce a day. Around 200 companies use artificial light methods in Japan alone, estimates vertical farming expert Toyoki Kozai, chief-director of the Japan Plant Factory Association and president of Chiba University.
SPREAD won’t tell OZY exactly what the automated factories will look like. But you can bet there won’t be C-3PO-esque gardeners strolling around. Instead, automation will subtly replace the most labor-intensive tasks, says J.J. Price, global marketing manager — which means spacing out the lettuce heads as they bloom then harvesting. Kozai says “most operations” can be automated in plant factories today — floor cleaning, nutrient prep — but some processes will still require a human eye, like trimming damaged parts of the plant, monitoring subtle nuances in color to watch for physiological disorders and preventing the arrival of hungry insects.
Automated farming could correct for rural areas’ hemorrhaging populations worldwide, and account for nasty environmental impacts: 60 percent of Japanese food is imported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, despite the country’s fertile landscape. Globally, the urgency of water shortages — from India to California — is mounting, and USDA data shows 80 percent of freshwater goes to agriculture. SPREAD reduces water usage nearly 99 percent from traditional agriculture, and is doing it faster: Normally a head of lettuce takes 60 days to go from farm to shelf; at Kameoka, it’s 42, and at the new plants, they’re shooting for 35. (They’re messing with other leafy greens beyond lettuce, which isn’t native to the Japanese palate.)
Inada took a job right out of high school. “I was in a rush to become an adult, to become a part of society,” he says.
It’s funny to finally see the humble lettuce after hearing the grand plans. In a sterile white room, an astronaut-suited worker wends his way through artificially lit rows of lettuce heads, which resemble baby clones from a sci-fi movie being bred for nefarious missions. Surprisingly humble too is Inada himself. Good-looking and tight-lipped during an 11 o’clock meeting with high-level managers, he asks few questions. Later, OZY learns one member of the team was absent — his wife, Mari, who holds a C-level or director-equivalent position, in the first of his surprising business choices (especially in Japan, where women are not known for thriving in the workforce).
Later, Inada hosts visitors from a top Japanese bank; they stand in their salarymen suits, examining the lettuce. Inada has juggled charm and confidence while fully funding the new factory at about $20 million. A global expansion may depend on new “funding partners,” and a revenue model rests in part on a patent currently pending on elements of the current farm, which will allow licensing fees for the technology. Plus there’s the actual lettuce being sold in grocery stores and restaurants across Japan.
Sitting down with OZY, Inada is affable and dapper. He relies on an interpreter, though SPREAD is his umpteenth company with an English name, and part of his larger corporation, the private company Trade Group, which includes CRUISE (for logistics) and DEAL (for transporting veggies), among others. Trained as a salesman for Coca-Cola, a job he held out of high school and left after a year, Inada believes work can serve as a better education than college — an unthinkable choice for his day. “I was in a rush to become an adult, to become a part of society,” he says. If that’s so, he took the liberal arts route through the workforce, gathering diverse experience in wholesale markets and precious gems — luxury goods whose popularity dried up post-bubble, causing him to pivot to businesses that wouldn’t be “so easily impacted by the market.”
SPREAD has had its hiccups, though. Naohiro Oiwa, the Kameoka factory manager, says he often wondered in the early days, “Are we gonna make it?” Food safety was on the line, and they were a fledgling organization. Plus, despite workers who put their faith in Inada’s zeal and grit, the company’s future hinges on two external races: toward a global food shortage on one end, and, on the other, advanced technology like AI for farm factories, says Kozai. “It’s complicated for the human brain to solve, so we need software.”
It’s an irresistible challenge for a futurist and would-be science geek. Inada, whose father was a metalworker, says he was drawn to gemstones and farms not entirely for their profit potential but also because of an unfulfilled love for geology. He still gets excited telling OZY that graphite and diamond are derived from the same basic material … yet become different things. Not a bad analogy for a young company, either.
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- Sanjena Sathian, OZY Author Contact Sanjena Sathian