25 May 2020
There has been a lot of innovation in agriculture in recent decades. Whereas in the past, common sense was leading, robots and smart systems have taken over a large part of the daily work. They keep an eye on everything. Food and water are automatically replenished on behalf of the farmer and the smart fire system detects smoke even before the farmer can smell it. In a world where innovation and efficiency predominate, students at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) are looking for the one part that can still be improved. Peasant Innovation 2.0, you could say.
Thijs Hendrix, co-founder of Hendrix Genetics, takes the students with him. Innovation does not always start in a lab or with fundamental research. The search for practical solutions in existing companies often results in new products or applications. Hendrix Genetics is a breeding company of among others chickens, pigs and salmon. The company distinguishes itself by the large amount of knowledge about new technologies and smart solutions with which they help their customers further. "Our main goal is to provide enough and sustainably produced food for the growing world population," says Thijs Hendrix.
According to him, innovation cannot be lacking. A collaboration with the TU/e turned out to be a logical move. "The Eindhoven region has a mentality from which we as an agricultural sector can learn", he states. "Philips used to provide industry and employment in the region. When it moved production to cheaper countries, the region had to reinvent itself. That's how open innovation came into being. Companies, governments and knowledge institutes started to work together intensively and transparently for the best result. "That led to new activity", he continues. "I want to bring about such a shift in the agricultural sector as well. I hope that the Eindhoven mentality will inspire the agricultural sector so that farmers will look for new earning models and greater added value".
A big and challenging task for the students who went out with Thijs Hendrix. Because the entire agricultural sector is too large and complex to be viewed at once, the students first took a look at the poultry farms. They followed an egg from the chicken to the supermarket. "The students are not so deep into the matter so they can look at it more easily with a helicopter view. Then they might notice things that our company and the farmers themselves hadn't seen at all," says Hendrix. He not only refers to points for improvement in the current process, but also to completely redesigning it. "In addition, the students can compare the process with other industrial processes to see whether new insights and improvements are still possible here.
Competition in the egg market is fierce. In order to keep their heads above water, poultry farms have set up their process as efficiently as possible. Henk Stals, founder of Happy Egg, gives the students a tour of his company. Stals: "As a sector we have to crawl out of our shell and show what is happening. Then we will get more understanding from other sectors and citizens". That's why he opens the doors for the students. Moreover, he is visibly proud of what he and his brother have achieved with this company. In addition to the regular eggs, Stals also supplies eggs under the name Happy Egg that local residents 'take out of the wall' at all times. A popular concept in northern Limburg.
The company is equipped with all kinds of high tech gadgets. The overalls and clogs have remained, but apart from that, all the old-fashioned parts have disappeared. The thatched roofs have been replaced by solar panels, making the company completely self-sufficient in terms of energy and heat. The feed for the chickens is also made on the farm. They know exactly what the best composition of food is for their chickens. The farmer doesn't have to run from hot to hot again. For example, water and feed are automatically replenished and a record is kept of how much the chickens consume.
All in all, a lot of data is collected on the farm. Per barn, per hen or even per egg it is possible to map what the production has cost and what it yields. Stals: "With improvements in technology and genetics we will no longer reduce the cost price. In my opinion, we have already made optimum use of that. We have to look at other earning models". Expanding the data and making it easier to understand could be a new gold mine for farmers. A new product that they can market. But how? That's what the students are going to find out.
Bart Engelen, student in technical business administration at TU/e, was looking for a new challenge from practice. Within TU/e innovation Space he gets the opportunity to work with companies on new technologies and innovations. The data problem of the farmers fits in perfectly. Farmers collect a huge amount of data about the chickens themselves, their circumstances and the cost and yield. By making this transparent, the chain could become more transparent. On the one hand, this would improve the competitive position of farmers because they would be able to show in figures what is happening on their farms. In addition, this could possibly lead to even more efficient and, above all, more sustainable production, for example by further reducing waste.
Article by Innovation Origins.