Digital Fast Company

The Internet Of Things Meets Hydroponics: How To Grow A Better Vegetable


Adam Piore

June 26, 2014

About 60 miles from the site of the deadly 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture, inside a former silicon chip manufacturing facility owned by the Japanese computer company Fujitsu, a small team of highly trained engineers are working on one of the company’s hottest new products. Fujitsu’s marketing team claims it’s already proving a hit with their oldest–and youngest–consumers. It’s so popular, in fact, it’s probably just the first in a long line of related Fujitsu products. The product is lettuce.

Like the giant monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, this new head of lettuce is simultaneously a product of this factory’s past and the future. Fujitsu is a space-age R&D innovator with sprawling, specialized factories. But several of its facilities, including this one, went dark when the company tightened its belt and reorganized its product lines after the 2008 global financial crisis. Now in the aftermath, it has retrofitted this facilities to serve tomorrow’s vegetable consumers, who will pay for a better-than-organic product, and who enjoy a bowl of iceberg more if they know it was monitored by thousands of little sensors.

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From World-Leading To Hydroponics

A year into the project, Fujitsu is now producing between 2,500 and 3,000 heads of a lettuce a day that sell for three times the normal price: The company is using its hydroponic lettuce farm to showcase its “smart” farming technologies, in the hopes of nurturing a new agribusiness.

The project is the outgrowth of a company-wide reorganization following the 2008 financial crisis, after which Fujitsu decreased its number of product lines from nine to six. Originally built in 1967, the building where the company is now growing lettuce was once the largest transistor factory in the world. Over the years, Fujitsu expanded, buying up three other buildings and the remainder of the industrial park, bringing its total footprint in the area to roughly 260,000 square meters.

After the post-Lehman reorganization, however, workers stripped the building of much of its machinery, left a “mere skeleton, just a concrete box,” says Kohji Nomaki, director of planning for Fujitsu’s Advanced Agricultural Division. Still, the facility retained all that was needed to seal it off from bacteria and dust. Semiconductor factories are specially outfitted with filtration devices to create a clean room environment, because “just one piece of dust on a semiconductor will make it usable,” explains Nomaki.

At the facility, located in the traditional Japanese city of Aizuwakamatsu, long rows of lettuce trays are stacked seven levels high, each bathed in iridescent hues of ultraviolet light. Workers in full-body white, protective suits move among the rows carrying tablets and checking on sensors arrayed throughout the 2,000-meter-square facility.

“The same members who used to manage the clean room for semiconductor production are the members that are managing clean room for vegetable plant,” Nomaki said. “It’s a very elaborate filtration system. So they have knowledge how to realize this optimized environment for production.”

To showcase its smart-farming technologies, Fujitsu has equipped the space with more than 100 sensors that monitor temperature, moisture, CO2, air current, lighting, fertilizer flow, and the pH of the soil. Readings are uploaded to the company’s latest cloud platform, allowing the teams of engineers in their suits to monitor them on Fujitsu tablets. It’s the Internet of things in a completely antiseptic space.

Dominque Betaz, a Florida-based agricultural researcher who currently serves as head of new product development at Pathway Biologists, notes that there’s a need for new products that integrate information from sensors, and to make them user friendly. The market for systems to maximize greenhouse yields, he adds, is growing overseas. China, he notes, has 2 million acres under greenhouse.

“In cold countries where you have to feed people year round and you have limited space, like Japan and Holland, this type of system makes a lot of sense,” he says. “For just a couple thousand dollars worth of monitors, you can markedly increase your yield.”

Hydroponic vegetables: SOMKKU via Shutterstock

The Demand For Purer, Modified Lettuce

Sterilized with ultraviolet rays, protected from outside contamination by sophisticated filtration systems, Futjitsu’s lettuce is a germaphobe’s dream. It also will appeal to anyone concerned about the radioactive contamination from the nuclear accident 60 miles away. (Experts say this is more than a safe distance from Fukushima.)

“Japanese people are looking for safe vegetables that give you peace of mind,” says Nomaki. Though there are an estimated 120 plant-growing facilities inside old Japanese factories, Fujitsu’s retrofitted facility is the only one that can claim complete protection from outside contaminants, he notes.

By controlling these factors and working in collaboration with experts from Akita University, Fujitsu’s engineers have managed to cultivate produce with unusually low levels of potassium, a feat only pulled off at one other facility. The low potassium makes the produce both tastier and highly desirable to one of the fastest growing markets in Japan–elderly Japanese undergoing kidney dialysis, Nomaki says. Patients undergoing dialysis often have compromised immune systems, and they are normally forced to give up raw vegetables to avoid potassium. Japan is projecting huge growth in its elderly population in the years ahead. Already about 320,000 Japanese are undergoing artificial dialysis. Another 2 million people will likely be undergoing artificial dialysis in the near future.

As a result, the 2,500 to 3,000 heads of lettuce Fujitsu produces every day sell for three times the price of a normal head. Fujitsu is aiming to produce 450 million yen in annual lettuce revenue by 2016. That’s more than enough green to make the venture profitable, says Nomaki. (Overall capital investment is projected to be 400 million yen, some of which is being covered by a grant from the Japanese government.) The profit will be gravy, since when they announced the project officials originally stated the main goal was simply to showcase their technologies.

And kids actually like this lettuce. “The low-potassium lettuce is liked by children who don’t like vegetables because it doesn’t taste bitter,” says Takeshi Wakabayashi, a Fujitsu senior director. “This lettuce is very crunchy, it tastes very good, and it will stay in the same condition for more than two weeks.”

Fujitsu plans to vastly expand its product offerings. They are currently conducting trials on 20 other types of vegetables and are in the process of selecting which ones will be the next to ship to stores. Salad spinach is a front-runner, Wakabayashi says, but broccoli is a non-starter. The root systems of non-leafy vegetables require far more light, which Wakabayashi says would render such a project too costly. Sorry, parents of broccoli-haters.

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