September 11, 2015      

Where will your next salad come from, and how will we feed everyone? The global population continues to grow, arable land is scarce in many regions, and water supplies are affected by pollution and climate change concerns. Indoor and robotic agriculture could offer a stable food source and save lives through better distribution of resources.

With energy-efficient LED lighting, precise measurement of water and fertilizers, and year-round growing, automated greenhouses and farms could be useful anywhere.

Japan-based Spread Co. is building a farm in which every step of lettuce growing will be automated, from planting and growing through harvesting. Conditions including light, humidity, and temperature will also be automatically controlled, reducing the need for fertilizers or pesticides.

Spread was founded in 2006 and already operates the “world’s largest vegetable factory” in Kameoka in the Kyoto Prefecture. It produces 7.7 million heads of lettuce per year.

The new factory’s design goals include keeping it environmentally friendly by reusing 98 percent of water and keeping costs down through the use of automation, cutting the need for human labor by 50 percent.

Farm follows Japan’s plan for robotics

A low birthrate, an aging population, and the resulting labor shortages, as well as limited natural resources, have led Japan to become a leader in industrial automation and arguably the most robot-friendly nation in the world. Foreign investors have recognized that expertise; 500 Startups has established a $30 million fund to support ventures in robotics and other industries.

Robotic lettuce farm

Spread is building automated lettuce farms.

The Japanese government wants the nation to retain its leadership in robotics applications in response to increasing competition from China, South Korea, and the U.S.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Robot Revolution Council is developing a five-year plan to expand industrial efficiency and the consumer use of robotics and to stimulate Japan’s slowing economy.

Japanese universities have studied intensive hydroponic growing of lettuce, and Spread is working to commercialize the technology and market it internationally.

New factory to provide rapid ROI

Spread claims that its existing yields are at 97 percent, and its “Vege-tus” brand is available in 2,000 stores around Tokyo. The vertical farm will occupy only 4,800 square meters (about 15,700 square feet), including laboratory and office space.

By saving space and increasing efficiency, Spread said that its new factory will save 25 percent of the cost of producing each head of lettuce. Construction on Spread’s new factory is expected to begin next spring and to take about a year.

Tsubakimoto Chain Co. will provide the automation systems, while Obayashi Corp. will handle construction, engineering, and environmental controls. WIT Corp. is developing a factory management system, and Toray Industries will provide water recycling technology.

The company plans to spend 1.6 billion to 2 billion yen ($13 million to $16 million), but it estimated annual sales to be about 1 billion yen ($8.2 million) for a rapid return on investment.

More on Robot Farming and Japan:

Spread plans to produce 30,000 to 80,000 heads of lettuce per day “at the push of a button,” triple of what its current factory grows. It hopes to harvest up to 500,000 heads of lettuce per day in five years.

In addition, Spread is building factories in Hong Kong, Mongolia, and Russia. Japanese electronics companies including Fujitsu Ltd., Panasonic Corp., and Toshiba Corp. are also starting to grow vegetables in their factories, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Similarly, Vancouver-based VertiCrop is running a Kickstarter campaign to develop vertical, urban agriculture. The market for agricultural robotics could grow from $817 billion in 2013 to $16.3 billion in 2020, predicts a report from Wintergreen Research.