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Down on the factory-farm, Japan's electronics makers are turning over a new leaf

Tim Hornyak | May 28, 2014
From July, Toshiba will begin shipping spinach, lettuce, baby leaf greens, sprouts and mizuna greens. They will be grown in a germ-free clean room at a factory that once made floppy disks.

Sure, you could buy a laptop, tablet or cloud service from Toshiba. But how about some spinach?

The Tokyo-based conglomerate is joining other IT firms in Japan by getting into high-tech farming. The companies say there's demand for vegetables that are free of pesticides and other substances, as well as produce with specific nutritional profiles.

From July, Toshiba will begin shipping spinach, lettuce, baby leaf greens, sprouts and mizuna greens. They will be grown in a germ-free clean room at a factory that once made floppy disks.

The 1,969-square-meter facility in Yokosuka southwest of Tokyo had been lying idle, but it's being dusted off to grow vegetables that will be sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants. They will have an extended shelf-life compared to field-grown crops.

The agricultural technology installed includes fluorescent lighting that has a wavelength optimized for vegetable growth, monitoring systems to track the growth and a production management system based on methods used in semiconductor device manufacturing.

Japanese consumers want produce untainted by pesticides or other substances, according to Toshiba, which is aiming for annual sales of ¥300 million (US$2.9 million). It also plans to harvest vegetables that are rich in polyphenols and vitamin C.

"To meet these increasing demands, a closed-type plant factory that operates under almost aseptic conditions is ideal for production," a Toshiba spokeswoman said.

"Toshiba has all the integral technologies to achieve such a factory, including energy production and control, lighting, water and air control, ICT and a high level of production management. This is the major reason for us to enter the business."

Toshiba's move follows Fujitsu's production of lettuce grown in a sterile facility that was once used to make chips for mobile phones and other devices.

The leafy greens are raised in hydroponic racks with the help of sensors and cloud computing systems. They're also specially low in potassium and targeted at the more than 1 million Japanese who have chronic kidney disease. At about ¥500 per 90-gram bag, the lettuce is about twice the cost of regular lettuce in Japan, but it can be eaten without being washed.

"By using a clean room environment, virtually no contaminants will come into contact with the vegetables as dust that could be a breeding ground for bacteria is almost entirely nonexistent," said Koji Nomaki, a spokesman for group company Fujitsu Home & Office Services.

Fujitsu's cloud service for crops, dubbed Akisai, can help managers control factors such as internal air temperatures, humidity, CO2 levels, fertilizer levels, pH and electrical conductivity.

"If a product lot is unsatisfactory, the environmental factors of that particular lot can be confirmed and analyzed to develop countermeasures that prevent further occurrence of poor results," Nomaki said.

 

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