“History is written in circles as we observe similar drive for automation in indoor farming, as we saw years ago in the intralogistics sector. There are yet few important differences,” says Timo Landener, product innovator at Swisslog.
Swisslog, with the vision to shape the future of intralogistics, not only develops warehouse automation and software solutions to reduce costs and introduce flexibility to warehouse-based operations but also looks into innovative future-proof approaches. In March 2021, Swisslog announced its foray into the vertical farming market. While Swisslog has not specifically designed systems for vertical farming, its vast portfolio of automation solutions can be adapted to vertical farms, whether pre-existing or purpose-built.
“At Swisslog, we don’t have standard solutions in place for vertical farms yet. But due to our long-lasting expertise both in the food industry and in the distribution of fresh products to the point of sale, we understand the supply chain processes and linked to that shelf life considerations. Moreover, our portfolio can be easily adapted to indoor farming since the payload is fairly light, the throughput is not critical and the automation operations demand low power compared to the needs of the intralogistics automation,” explains Timo. “Nevertheless, we already learned, that we can't just adopt the same requirements, because plants are living organisms. And we have to respect that.”
Although unable to reveal their clients, Swisslog has reportedly demonstrated its technologies in the vertical farming industry with success to allow growers to reduce operational costs and increase scalability. Examples of innovative systems applicable to vertical farming include the PowerStore high-density storage system, the AGV based good-to-person order fulfillment solution CarryPick, the Tornado mini-load crane and the Vectura stacker crane.
When does automation become economically feasible?
Automation can be applied to multiple processes in an indoor farm including seeding, harvesting, packaging, tray manipulation, etc. However, Timo explains that automation is capital-intensive and best suited for large-scale indoor farms. A higher production level introduces more opportunities to increase operational efficiency and reduce labor requirements.
“Even Amazon began in a small space with little automation. Then, they reached a level where automation made sense. In the vertical farming industry, we need to discuss with clients where the tipping point is for needing automation,” says Timo.
To determine which automation solutions are right for the grower, Swisslog’s automation experts work directly with clients to identify opportunities for increased operational efficiency and customize solutions according to the farm’s architecture. Additionally, the close relation with KUKA as the parental company allows collaboration opportunities to automate and incorporate the sub-processes in an Indoor Farm to a more turnkey solution.
Timo explains that despite the relatively short distance between urban indoor farms and retailers, a major challenge to indoor farming is the logistics of transporting farm-grown products to retailers while maintaining crop quality.
“After the plants have grown in a perfect environment, they are cut and immediately begin to lose quality. The current challenge is to speed up the process of getting the products to the retailer. Pursuing the innovative approach of harvesting-on-demand, we can make sure that the end customer receives fresh and rich nutrition vegetables. With a palette of automated solutions this is finally possible,” says Timo.
Swisslog’s ties with global retailers started long ago as the Swiss Company delivered solutions for huge automated projects (distribution centers) as well as smaller, more local applications, known as Micro-Fulfillment Centers. Harvesting-on-demand differs from mainstream distribution models by supplying retailers with living plants, which can continue growing until they are purchased.
This process can be carried out in retailers’ “back shops” and would support additionally retailers to fulfill three major sales channels: in-store sales, home delivery and BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store). Swisslog is certain that we are at the edge of a revolution in food the supply chain: There will be the need for Indoor Farms at the point of sales: a “fresh food on the demand-supply grid”. We see automation as a means for leveraging the indoor farms and help them deliver efficiency that will lower the entry threshold for further investments.
Retailers are a fundamental part of this revolution. “Many indoor farms are currently selling to retailers. Due to the fact, that the retailers sell the crops, they determine how the supply chain will look like. Thus, the power of re-designing the process of the supply chain and ensuring consistency in the circular economy lies in their hands. As for today, the complexity and ramifications of the matter inspire us to join forces with retailers and find out how to react in the best way to changing needs of the customers and the industry. We are on the verge of something new and powerful. Swisslog, an intralogistics automation leader, together with retailers and farming experts, we can deliver a great added value for consumers” explains Timo.