customer experiences

How the Netherlands can maintain its leading position in the horticulture sector

2 October 2018 • 5 min reading time

Ninety percent of greenhouses in the world are built and designed by Dutch companies. However, companies in the field of horticultural technology realize that innovation is vital if this leading position is to be maintained. That is why, as part of the Hortivation Foundation, they have been focused for many years on research and development. TNO is playing a key role in this.

According to Harm Maters, the deputy chairman of the Hortivation Foundation, the leading international position enjoyed by Dutch greenhouse builders and horticultural technology companies cannot easily be expressed in figures. “The fact is that we are renowned worldwide for our knowledge of the field and innovations in the area of food production,” explains Maters. “At the same time, we are succeeding in achieving high levels of production in a sustainable way that does not undermine food safety. Another aspect contributing to the country’s leading position is that Dutch companies are continuously innovating and seeking to move ahead.”

Efficient greenhouse design

It was in the late 1980s when businesses started to work in partnership. With the assistance of TNO, Dutch greenhouse builders have developed a calculation program that makes it possible to produce the most efficient glasshouse construction design. The designs are adapted optimally to meet the operational needs of each cultivator. “Now, almost every greenhouse is designed with the help of this CASTA/Kassenbouw program,” says TNO’s Egon Janssen. “This tool was one of the factors behind the expansion and success - not least at international level - of Dutch greenhouse builders.”

“The CASTA/Kassenbouw program was one of the factors behind the expansion and success of Dutch greenhouse builders”

Staying ahead of the competition

Whereas it was originally only the greenhouse builders who pooled their resources, several years ago a wider group of horticulture technology companies joined forces in the Hortivation Foundation, which also includes engineers, ICT and automation firms, and suppliers of cultivation systems. “The affiliated companies realize that structural and joint innovation is vital in order to stay ahead of the competition,” says Maters. “After all, you are able to take bigger steps when working collectively, especially when it concerns problems or developments that affect multiple companies at international level. An example that comes to mind is that of making greenhouses earthquake-proof.”

Adapting greenhouse designs to energy and climate

The partnership with TNO that led to the creation of CASTA/Kassenbouw was continued in the Hortivation Foundation, and both parties have been working together on innovation for several years now. The partnership was extended for a further five years last year. “In recent years, there has been extensive investment in the development of the SIOM calculation model, for which Hortivation has just started issuing licences,” says Janssen. “With this model, it is possible to tailor technical greenhouse designs to local circumstances like energy and climatea maximum yield and the lowest possible costs for cultivators.”

Digital cultivator

In the next few years, the most prestigious project on the agenda will be data driven integrated growing systems. The aim is to create a type of ‘digital cultivator’, with the help of big data and ICT. “It is becoming increasingly frequent for parties from outside the sector to invest in greenhouse projects,” says Dave Fennema, technical director at the Dalsem greenhouse building company. “They possess no knowledge of cultivating, but they nonetheless want to be certain of achieving the best-possible production levels. This means that, as a supplier, you have to go further than simply building greenhouses; you also have to offer cultivation and business management. In this way, we can provide output guarantees.”

“In the long term, you could establish a ‘nerve centre’ in the Netherlands, from where we could operate and monitor any number of greenhouses all over the world”

Operating greenhouses remotely

TNO is therefore going to develop a platform with greenhouse construction and ICT companies in which all the data flows from a company can be collected. Such data could relate to employment, climate and the use of water, for example. Janssen: “The next step is for the TNO data science group to compare and analyse data from greenhouses in different parts of the world. This will make it possible to devise an optimum cultivation strategy for a particular location. And then, with the help of modern-day techniques, it will be very easy to operate the greenhouse in question remotely. In the long term, you could establish a ‘nerve centre’ in the Netherlands, from where we could operate and monitor any number of greenhouses all over the world.” The stakeholders assume that this will enable businesses to respond even more effectively to the wishes of their customers or potential customers. “We will soon be in a position to relieve them of their operational concerns and assist them in gaining the maximum benefit from their investments,” says Fennema.

Textbook example of SME collaboration

Maters and Fennema both emphasize that TNO is the ideal innovation partner for Hortivation, not just because of the knowledge and skills that the knowledge institute has at its disposal, but also because of the relationship of trust that has been built up over many years. “TNO possesses a great deal of fundamental knowledge in the areas of construction, energy and ICT,” explains Maters. “By combining this know-how with our own practical knowledge, we are able to innovate at a more rapid pace. I would even go so far as to say that TNO has made a significant contribution to the leading position that we in the Dutch horticulture sector occupy, and indeed to helping us maintain that position.” Janssen describes the partnership between TNO and Hortivation as a ‘textbook example of SME collaboration’, that he believes others would do well to follow. “However, there are very few SMEs that are engaged with chain innovations; in many cases, they are simply too small. This is why working with others - with fellow businesses and knowledge institutes - is so important.”

“TNO has made a significant contribution to the leading position that we in the Dutch horticulture sector occupy”

Triple helix approach

Maters also believes that the central government should engage with the collaboration between TNO and Hortivation. “With a joint programme approach to SMEs, we can accelerate the rate of innovation in the field of horticultural technology even more. This is important: the greenhouse technology sector is a leading player among SMEs in terms of both innovation and international distribution - around seventy percent of turnover is achieved outside the Netherlands. This requires an active triple helix approach, in which government bodies, businesses and knowledge institutes work together.”

New challenge

Action is also needed in relation to other developments, says Maters. “There is the fact that more and more people are moving to cities, all over the world. This means we have to organize food production and distribution differently - a new challenge, and one that our sector has to meet. Innovation is therefore as vital today as ever.”

More information?

Would you like more information? Please contact Egon Janssen.

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