To produce a vanilla bean, a bee must pollinate the flowers of a vanilla vine. It may sound like a simple process, but it’s actually far more involved than it seems.
On average, a vine sprouts a single flower a day, and that flower lasts a mere 12 hours. Only one kind of bee, the Mexican micro bee, is capable of pollinating the flowers, and will only pollinate two to six percent of those in bloom. Growers must pollinate the rest using a method that is almost 180 years old.
Consider too the fact vanilla can only grow in tropical regions such as Madagascar, and you start to understand why it is the second most valuable spice on the world market.
The market is spicing up, however, with a partnership between Schneider Electric and Australian entrepreneur David Soo, who are preparing to disrupt this unique, complex production process through the use of automated energy technology.
The Vanilla Dome—a 95sqm structure in Newcastle, New South Wales—uses Schneider’s EcoStruxure Food and Beverage technology to replicate Madagascan conditions in rural Australia.
The automated system reproduces a tropical climate through the opening and closing of vents, misting, heating, and irrigating of plants, which grow on three-dimensional rotating trellis that reposition daily to promote healthy growth. Central management services, available over a wide area network, allow Soo to respond to critical events immediately, either at the site, or via a remote device.
The company believes that initiating a future farming practice that uses available connected, smart and efficient technology can encourage farmers and manufacturers to form bold ideas to digitally transform not just their business, but the entire sector.
“The number of greenhouses used in the agricultural industry is growing every year, and projects like Vanilla Dome represent the future of horticulture”, says Brad Yager, director for industrial automation at Schneider Electric.
“Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure platform enables a connected and automated system that is easy to scope and install so the farmer or manufacturer can transform standard operations to increase production and gain flexibility. For Vanilla Dome, it allows the growing and processing of vanilla a long way from the tropics, (while) delivering cost savings and (a) reliable supply of high quality beans.”
Without such technology, Soo says he would be unable to grow quality vanilla beans in Australia, due both to the required climate conditions, and the high costs associated with labour and production. With it, he is able to support the local food sector, supplying a resource that’s worth more than its weight in silver.