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Case Study

How Growcer Created The First Fully Automated Swiss Vertical Farm with the Help of DHR Engineering

Effectively Cutting Down Annual Costs By 286,460 CHF,
Increasing Productivity 3X and Attracting 600,000 CHF Funding

Growcer AG is a Swiss start-up on a mission to reinvent farming. The company creates automated vertical farms, including Europe’s most automated vertical farm located in Basel, Switzerland – the subject of this document. Growcer started with one simple idea. Traditional farming is broken. The overuse of pesticides and water, as well as other harmful practices in traditional farming, pose a massive threat to our health and environment. Sooner or later, it will lead to catastrophic soil contamination and water shortages, diminishing global food production and collapsing the global food and water supply chain. To avoid world hunger and water crisis, we need to take radical action and revolutionize farming methods.

Vertical farming is Growcer’s answer. In a vertical farm:

You can use over 90% less water compared to traditional farms

You don’t use pesticides, fungicides, and other substances harmful to our health and the soil as produce is grown in a controlled and isolated environment

Safely grow crops indoors, so you aren’t dependent on climate changes

Be close to the end consumer – vertical farms are in cities, which means short delivery time, fresh food for consumers and less food waste and food loss in the food supply chain

Greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions because you don’t need heavy agricultural machinery to operate

On top of everything, the indoor, controlled environment opens up an opportunity for automation. That’s when Growcer decided to go a step further and create the first of its kind, fully automated vertical farm. The big question was HOW?

In search of answers and solutions, the founder of Growcer, Marcel Florian, met with Dimitar, the founder of DHR Engineering, through a platform connecting professionals. Marcel reviewed the background of Dimitar and his team, all having degrees from the Top 20 Engineering Universities in Europe and experience working on big and complex automation projects.

A key decision factor was DHR’s team scientific background in robotics and also their extensive experience in creating custom robots, successfully completing projects with companies like BMW.

After attending a Free Consultation, Marcel decided to trust DHR’s expertise and delegated the full automatization responsibility of the Basel vertical farm to Dimitar and his team.

Growcer already had a proven-to-work MVP and it was time to scale. However, there were lots of unanswered questions, problems and challenges. For starters, Marcel thought of installing a rail lifting mechanism. However, there were three major issues with that:

Large initial investment in rails contradicting the tight budget

Hard to scale because every tiny change in the farm’s layout requires installing additional rail and software adjustments that make the process slow and expensive

Getting permission in Switzerland to drill the floor to install rails is extremely burdensome and usually makes the rent contract much longer and much more expensive

Workforce was another problem. A human vertical farmer is required to wear protective clothing due to the high hygiene requirements while constantly lifting plant frames with an average weight of 15 kg., which makes the work process very unpleasant. At the time, there was only one human farmer in Growcer’s vertical farm in Basel – found after a long search and taking 45 CHF an hour which was the lowest rate Marcel and his team could find.

Also, there were lots of other fundamental questions that needed answers. What types of shelves would be the best fit for a larger scale of production? What would be the most suitable and effective watering system?

As a solution, instead of a rail mechanism, DHR Engineering proposed an autonomous forklift that does all the manual, repetitive tasks, taking over the entire logistics within the vertical farm.

However, to use the plant growing area in the vertical farm in an optimal way, the forklift needed to be:

with small dimensions (1.2 x1.2 x 1.8 meters)

with high precision (+ -5mm)

for lightweight loads – up to 30kg

for large heights – up to 6m

Naturally, such a forklift wasn’t commercially available. So DHR Engineering had to innovate and build it from scratch. Time and budget were against Growcer, so DHR’s team had to act fast and with utmost precision. All while researching and finding the best shelving and watering systems and considering other important factors such as the mechanical interface – the part of the custom robot forklift that interacts with objects within the vertical farm.

“A mistake many beginners in the industry make is focusing on things like the robot’s movements and not paying attention to the mechanical interface. Yet, that is one of the most important parts of the entire solution. The part of the robot that gets the job done.”

Dimitar,
Founder of DHR Engineering

To secure the success of the project, DHR used lean robot development strategy, which includes the creation of prototypes for all key mechanical mechanisms and software algorithms at the earliest possible stage of development. Using 3D printing and Robot Operating System (ROS), Dimitar and his team were able to concentrate on the innovation and added value and don’t waste time they didn’t have for basic things in the development process.
Growcer got their ready-to-use, fully functional autonomous forklift and the best state-of-the-art shelving and watering systems well within time and budget. This resulted in:

3X productivity as the autonomous forklift tackled the same workload as 3 human farmers

286,460 CHF annual savings by replacing the salaries of 3 human workers

2-year contract with Migros Basel – Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain

The first fully automated vertical farm in Switzerland

600,000 CHF investment from the popular show Shark Tank, Switzerland

No need to hire human farmers who leave often and are difficult to manage

Easy to scale and adjust the number of grown vegetables on a weekly basis, according to vendors’ requirements

Avoid dumping the entire crop and performing complete cleansings of the watering system which has happened previously due to human farmers failing to meet the high hygiene requirements

Average monthly work hours for 3 human workers – 3 x 160h = 480 hours. The robot works 16 hours every day (8 hours charging) without a single day off – 16h x 30d = 480 hours

Average annual working days in Basel, Switzerland – 252. Minimum paid holiday – 20 days. 272 paid days total. Annual salary for three workers – 45 CHF x 8h x 272d x 3 workers = 293,760 CHF. Annual electricity cost for the robot forklift 365d x 20 CHF = 7,300. Total annual savings 293,760 – 7,300 = 286,460 CHF

“Before we met Dimitar and his team, we already knew what the automation system should do. However, we were not sure how to achieve that and what were the best solutions to our problems. The whole team of DHR Engineering was up for the challenge. Throughout the entire process, they kept close communication with our team. We had recurring meetings about the design process to make sure the automation solution will not only fit our needs but also allow us to fit the needs of our potential customers. They needed only two iterations to complete the project successfully, which is basically nothing. In the end, we had a superior quality solution, completed in a very short time frame while also keeping our tight budget in mind. I definitely recommend Dimitar and DHR Engineering’s team to every company looking for the right automation solution. I’m sure they will exceed your bravest expectations.”

Marcel Florian CEO Growcer Ag