Our technology helps the world access more sustainable food

The agriculture and greenhouse horticulture sectors have an undeservedly conservative image.

Technology is playing an increasingly more important role in our food supply and in making the food chain more sustainable.

The agricultural and horticultural sectors are facing some major challenges. Various parts of the world are already dealing with increasing food shortages, which will only become more dire as the populations continue to grow. At the same time, the world is desperate for sustainable food production, a sustainable food chain, and better distribution of the produced food.

The greenhouse horticulture sector in the Westland region is the perfect experimental garden for ABB to test new, innovative, and sustainable solutions.

Robotics as a solution for unfilled job openings

It is becoming increasingly more difficult to find labour for the cultivation of fresh vegetables, fruit, plants, and crops. Robots help agricultural and horticultural companies deal with the lack of labour and save on high employee and recruitment costs. It’s a misconception that robots make people superfluous – people will always be necessary for smarter cultivation – but robots can take on a portion of the heavy, repetitive work. If required, robots can be used day and night, which means the greenhouse horticulture sector can more flexibly satisfy the trend to cultivate more intensively and with more variety.

In the early 1970s, ASEA (Ed. the ‘A’ in ABB) marketed the first industrial robot. Decades of development and experience have resulted in these robots becoming robust and affordable. When combined with the right vision technologies and tools, industrial robots can also be used as reliable labour in the greenhouse horticulture sector. This relates to things like sowing, maintenance, harvesting, packaging, and palletising plants, fruit, and crops. Thanks to the development of vision technologies, it is possible to harvest fresh products at the right time and potentially package them immediately. This way, an investment in robotics and horticultural mechanisation is quickly earned back and growers get much more value from their fresh products.

Energy and water savings

It is clear that a greenhouse will require electrification to a large extent in order to be able to achieve sustainable fresh food production, which is not reliant on natural gas or other fossil fuels, close to urban areas. The sustainability of electricity is dependent upon the method of generation, storage, and transportation, as well as consumers using energy as efficiently as possible through automation and the utilisation of efficient capital assets.

ABB has all the ingredients necessary to help create a fully electric greenhouse together with the grower and the system integrator. This can range from the sustainable generation of electricity via solar power or wind energy, with or without the storage of that energy, to traditional grid connections to transformers and energy distribution.

The climate inside the greenhouse significantly affects the quality of the harvest. ABB supplies the medium-voltage and low-voltage frequency transformers for geothermal installations and heat grids; plus, inside the greenhouse, you will also find energy-efficient frequency transformers and efficient, quiet electric motors applied to the pumps and ventilators that ensure that the climate within the greenhouse is optimal.

Water usage in an enclosed cultivation system, like that in a greenhouse, is ten times lower than for open fields. Sufficient amounts of rain still fall in Belgium, but in large parts of the world, clean, fresh water is scarce. ABB’s technology makes it possible for system integrators to treat the water and safeguard the quality thereof so that it can be reused in a circular system for irrigation and the supply of nutrients.

A wide spectrum of light solutions

Not all fresh products need sunlight to grow, but they do need a light spectrum. Modern greenhouse horticulture is using lighting systems with increasing frequency to influence the growth and properties of fresh products and increase the yields.

These lighting systems can also be used for experimental vertical farms or cultivation systems in buildings that do not get any natural light. These vertical farms make it possible to get fresh products, which contain a lot of air or water, to consumers’ plates as fresh and full of flavour as possible, especially in urbanised areas. ABB provides solutions to link up, secure, and monitor these kinds of lighting systems in a sustainable way.

Big data, IoT, and blockchain in agriculture and horticulture

Big data plays an important role in creating innovations, including in agriculture and horticulture. These installations are linked to each other via modern communication facilities and can communicate with each other and/or with a cloud-based server. The digital solutions from the ABB Ability™ program provide the keys, based upon the collected data, to the continuous optimisation of installations and energy flows. Farmers and growers are thus free to focus entirely on their core activities, while the analysis of the data makes it possible for them to make well-considered decisions.

As consumers and as a society, we are making increasingly higher demands on the quality of our food and the way in which it is produced, preserved, and distributed. With the aid of track & trace solutions, we are able to guarantee the quality of fresh products. With the aid of blockchain, we can safeguard the food chain and offer highly demanding, modern consumers guarantees concerning the origin and quality of their food.

World Horti Center

Would you like to know more about our technology for agriculture and horticulture? Then please don’t hesitate to visit ABB’s information kiosk in the World Horti Center (WHC) in Naaldwijk, where research, education, and entrepreneurs come together to innovate. Because we can achieve so much more together than we can alone. Therefore, you are very welcome to visit us by appointment.

The ROC Mondriaan, which is also housed in the WHC, has provided ABB with an educational robot that can be used to introduce students to this type of automation. Moreover, these students all have a licence for ABB RobotStudio, in which they can work on a digital twin before a robotics solution is created.

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About the author

Marcel Zevenbergen

Marcel Zevenbergen, Segment Team Leader Food and Beverage, ABB Benelux. Marcel is a member of the Food & Beverage segment, a team that focuses on the eponymous sector, e.g. in terms of electrification, drive technologies, and digitisation in the horticultural world. With ABB since 1989.
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