Visions of Tomorrow – Engineered Today

Innovation: an interdisciplinary team effort – case: urban farming

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Elomatic FEI team members Mika Patrakka (right) and Jukka Mikkonen in their workshop.

Urban Farming is an irresistible concept. You can order the due date of your lettuce in advance and even follow the lettuce’s progress inside the growth incubator’s clean micro-ecosystem on your mobile device. The only thing more fascinating than this is the methods used by the concept developers. The concept was devised in a few months with the help of innovative thinking tools and by turning ideas inside-out. The story behind the concept is an indication of what Front End of Innovation (FEI) is at its best.

A few years ago the right people met by chance. “I was at the Virola greenhouse in Kangasala talking to the owners, the Oksanens, about this and that. Among others, we also discussed LED lighting as a promising technology. Timo Oksanen had an idea what kind of LED light could be used in greenhouses. The problem was that the available LED lights at the time were not optimized for plant growth”, says Juha Koriseva from Koriseva Oy.

This is where Elomatic’s Pekka Koivukunnas joins the story. At the time he was running his own innovation company.

“I started working with Pekka to come up with ideas for a LED light and quite quickly the first prototype was created”, Koriseva continues.

After the initial development work with Koivukunnas, Koriseva continued developing the light. It became apparent that that it could not be manufactured cost-efficiently from Finnish parts and as a result suitable components were sourced from Asia.

After two years of development work the first lighting solution was ready for greenhouse testing. The results were good and the first sales were made.

The story could ordinarily end here, but Koriseva was thinking about crop farming on a global scale.

Koriseva approached Elomatic for help with his internationalization plans. As it so happens, his early LED light development colleague, Pekka Koivukunnas, had in the meantime started working at Elomatic as an innovation expert.

While discussing cooperation generally, a range of other topics and ideas were covered. These included using a greenhouse application to control lighting and different automated warehousing systems. Elomatic’s Rami Raute suggested that a self-sufficient energy and nutrient cycle should be considered. It was at this stage that Koivukunnas came up with the idea of building a closed module for crop farming. As such, the idea for a plant factory had been formed.

“It is important to remember that innovation processes include combining a lot of spontaneous elements”, says Koivukunnas.

A joint development project between Elomatic and Koriseva was started in the summer of 2014 based on the different discussions. Along the way it was suggested that a prototype plant factory could be built in an abandoned industrial hall.

The actual factories can be built where there is demand, e.g. in the downtown areas of large cities. The modules can be stacked on top of each other; from there the term Vertical Farming. Future cities can be built around plant factories. Container farming solutions have been on the market for some time, which raises the question: What is new in the Vertical Farming concept?

According to Koriseva the big picture is missing in discussions about crop farming.

“There is a lack of interdisciplinary cooperation and all opportunities have not been taken advantage of. In Vertical Farming we brought all kinds of viewpoints on board. The innovation process has been very open. Elomatic played a key role here with their development and design expertise. A small company cannot develop international business operations on its own”, explains Koriseva.

In the urban farming concept a person who orders, e.g. lettuce can follow its growth online and chat with the crops growers.

In the urban farming concept a person who orders, e.g. lettuce can follow its growth online and chat with
the crops growers.

Don’t always invent, modify a lot

At Elomatic Pekka Koivukunnas, Jukka Mikkonen, Mika Patrakka and Rami Raute form an innovation team, i.e. a FEI team. It is focused on the Front End of Innovation, which precedes systematic research and development work (Stage Gate, see diagram above).

The team members stress that they don’t lecture, but rather invent new things. Their ability to develop such a wide range of diverging technologies and services is based on the similarities between otherwise very different innovations.

When they speak about lettuce production, they say something important about everything. The plant factory example lifts the veil of mysticism that surrounds the FEI team’s operations.

Pekka Koivukunnas indicates that what is new here is the fact that they are bringing technology from other industrial sectors to the greenhouse.

“In a way the whole concept has been reinvented, we are not just adding LED lighting to a current greenhouse. Our strength in Finland is the development of new innovative concepts that combine several different technologies and know-how areas”.

According to Mika Patrakka application needs to be highlighted; linking elements with each other, even matters that do not seem related at all need to be linked.

Simon Litvin, a leading developer of the TRIZ theory related to solving technical problems, once said “Adapt Existing solutions, don’t always invent”.

In recent years Litvin and his Boston-based team have focused on innovation. According to them inventing and managing inventions is tough if you start from zero. It is much faster if existing technology is transferred from another field and modified skilfully. Space technology has, for example, been applied in nappy production and construction technologies in bread baking.

The beginning of an innovation process with FEI and Stage Gate.

The beginning of an innovation process with FEI and Stage Gate.

Flip it around

Another element that is new in the Vertical Farming concept is that the starting point is warehousing technology, not production technology. This means a warehouse that is not passive, but active, where the stored items are self-sufficient during the storage period.

In traditional solutions water, nutrients and other supplies are taken to the plant. At the same time controllers (human beings) also go to the plants.

”In our concept the plants are brought to the different actors. We have an intelligent filling station where everything required for the container and plants is done. After that the container is taken to the warehouse. Light, water circulation, CO2 administration etc. are all included in the container”, explains Koivukunnas.

Here we recognize innovation principle thirteen as proposed by TRIZ founder Genrich Altshuller: do the opposite.

Think business and think big

The ideal solution is another TRIZ notion. One should aim for extremely good technology and business, even if the ideal is only realized 99%.

The name of the FEI team’s concept has also been processed radically. They talk rather of Urban Farming than Vertical Farming, which is only one technological aspect. This is an indication of a focus on entire business areas, not only technologies.

”Innovations are more interesting when you create new operational models and break down traditional business models”, says Mika Patrakka. “It is not always about new technologies, but rather about creating new business models and even industrial revolutions. Digitilization is the key to the birth of new industries”

There is still room for LED technology development. In the 2000s Physicist and LED Specialist, Roland Haitz formulated a rule of thumb for LED development. He predicted that every ten years the price of LED lighting per lumen will be cut by 90%.

The closed factory is insulated from weather and climate change and, therefore, can be located practically almost anywhere where there are people. Imagination is the only limitation.

Production is next to the customer, but the business can be global. The plant factory can be run through a data network from the other side of the world.

Familiar models are broken down in many ways. In the long run the automated technology and way of working can be replicated on a franchise basis. Entrepreneurs who join the business don’t need to be farmers. This can actually be an advantage, as a long tradition in any field can also deter renewal.

The modern technology used retains the human element to farming and creates new interactivity; the end user orders the lettuce and can follow its growth. He/she can also see who is producing the lettuce and chat with them. Plant factory communities can be created that develop new ideas and schools can have their own teaching containers.


Upward spiral of innovations

Good ideas generate questions and solutions. Can plants that are pollinated by insects be grown in containers? Does this include an adjacent pollination container and honey factory? Bee pollination has, in fact, already been tried in greenhouses.

In 2014 The Chiba University in Japan published the results of a feasibility study on rice factory farming. According to the study it would, among others, increase sales per hectare a hundred times and allow elderly and retarded people to work in the farming industry. It also identified some problems, such as the high use of energy and the fact that hazardous substances can become enriched in closed circuits, as well as the lack of automation.

Problems can be approached in two different ways. One could say: “You see, this is going nowhere”. Another approach would be to turn the problems into new innovations. How can we reduce energy consumption? How can we optimize the material cycle? Crop farming just received a development boost.

What is needed are plants suited to containers. What stops us from growing potatoes in containers? Potato blight would not be a problem and “new potatoes” could be cultivated all year round. If rice can be grown in a plant factory, why not wheat?

With know-how and emotion

The innovation team comes up with ideas when needed and acts analytically when needed. The work requires patience and courage, such as the courage to allocate sufficient time to an idea in the initial phases. The motto of the Elomatic FEI team is that the “slowest path is sometimes the fastest”.

According to Jukka Mikkonen the FEI team’s ability to innovatively connect different know-how areas, services and technologies is a key strength. Positively motivated and innovative people cooperate openly. When supported wisely by process management and the ability to apply different innovative working methods, this results in success stories.

Koivukunnas highlights emotions and how to benefit from them. “At the first level emotions are banned. In engineering organisations we are generally at this level. At higher levels the classification of emotions as negative or positive loses meaning and all emotions, even anger, are benefited from”.

Koivukunnas gives a classic example of jealousy: “In the USA when a neighbour gets a fancy new car (or anything else), his neighbour compliments him and says that he would like to get the same (or even better). In Finland we try to put a spanner in the works. One can find similar examples with regards anger; when you are angry you swear that you will do something and then you also stubbornly do so. With knowledge also these traditionally negative values can be benefited from in a constructive manner”.

Mika Patrakka believes that in a true innovation process it is crucial to link different and even seamingly unrelated elements.

Mika Patrakka believes that in a true innovation process it is crucial to link different and even seamingly unrelated elements.

The journey continues

Soon the plant factory project will advance to systematic product development. New problems have to be solved and commercialization has not traditionally been a Finnish strength.

As they proceed towards a commercialized product the way of working will have to change partly. Openness will, e.g., have to be curtailed. Open innovation brings IPR problems to mind. How can the solutions be safeguarded? “Open innovation and funding replace each other in a way”, says Koriseva.

”When an investor gets interested, we will need to solve IPR issues. Then our way of working can become more secretive, but also more focused on generating profits. In the beginning open innovation is also required due to a lack of other resources.”

The turning point where an investor joins the fray could be near.

”When one module is up and running and producing lettuce, investors may have seen enough to make their investment decisions.”

Mika Patrakka believes that in a true innovation process it is crucial to link different and even seamingly unrelated elements.

text: Kalevi Rantanen


The original text was published in our 2/2014 Top Engineer magazine

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