The Netherlands is one of the world's most innovative countries. It is home to world-class universities and research institutes, with TU/e taking the fifth spot on the World University Research Ranking in multi-disciplinarity, impact and collaboration. The Dutch are also the world’s second-largest exporters of agriculture and food products, and the number three suppliers of machinery and technology for the global agriculture and food processing industry.
What if we mix these impressive ingredients with a strong partnership between universities, industry and government and add in plenty of cross-pollination between the Top Sector High Tech Systems & Materials and the Top Sector Agri&Food? The outcome will be a fruitful Dutch AgriFoodTech innovation ecosystem.
For Jeannette Lankhaar, this unique recipe is nothing new. With an educational background in Food Technology and almost three decades of experience at Marel (the global provider of advanced food processing systems and services), she also strengthens the High Tech Systems Center (HTSC) in AgriFoodTech partnerships by connecting the fields of AgriFood and high-tech systems from a research and industrial perspective. In this article, Jeannette discusses her role at the HTSC, the challenges facing the global food supply and the solutions offered through collaboration and innovation.
“For Marel, close collaboration with universities, research institutes and industrial partners brings together the necessary multidisciplinary knowledge and experience to address the challenges in the food processing industry and to create real impact,” Jeannette begins. Marel’s strong research and development strategy is supported by an annual investment of roughly 6% of its revenue in innovation, as the company has long recognized that these collaborations are the key to breakthroughs.
“Our highly qualified researchers and engineers, a great working relationship with international leaders in the food processing industry and a pioneering mindset all contribute to our successful product development. This has kept Marel at the forefront of the food processing industry during the last decades,” continues Jeannette.
“In 2015, I came into contact with [HTSC directors] Katja Pahnke and Maarten Steinbuch after they had just started the HTSC. Soon after this meeting, they asked if I was interested in joining as an Industrial Resident for bridging high-tech research and applications in the area of AgriFood. When working at both HTSC and Marel, it’s extremely motivating to see our technology being brought into practice by companies and adding value.”
Marel and TU/e have a long history of working together in different research areas. This collaboration intensified in 2016, when PhD candidate Kay Peeters joined Marel to optimize product allocation by matching process control and design using new control algorithms. This has been followed up by PhD candidate Nick Paape, who is currently working on new transport and distribution systems to fulfill market needs. “The value both PhD students bring to Marel is a fundamental research point of view to our applied environment,” says Jeannette. “This also brings us to another important reason for Marel to work with universities: collaboration is one of the engines driving innovation, with talent as its most important fuel. We hope that the next generation of engineers will choose to work for Marel in the near future.”
Providing a growing global population with healthy diets from sustainable food chains will be a major challenge, especially in a world where hunger and over-consumption co-exist, resulting both low-quality diets and nutritional deficiencies. Worldwide, 400 billion tons of food are produced every year, which is thought to be enough to feed the predicted global population of 10 billion in 2050. However, as much as a third is lost within the food chain. In developing countries, a third is lost directly during or after harvesting. In industrialized countries, this happens in the food supply chain or consumer homes. All in all, this creates the need to produce food in a more sustainable manner. The ambition is to prevent this food waste but also to make food available and affordable for everyone.
The Dutch Research Council (NWO) program FlexCRAFT, concerning cognitive robots for flexible AgriFood technology, reflects this approach of efficient and sustainable food production. During this research program, robots will be developed which can deal with the large variety of AgriFood products in combination with ever-changing environmental conditions and tasks that are typical for the AgriFood chain. The FlexCRAFT program relies on a strong multidisciplinary collaboration of robotic researchers from five Dutch universities, as well as a user group of leading industry players including Marel. In FlexCRAFT, TU/e’s focus is on world modeling research, which was already explained in detail by TU/e PhD candidate Jorden Senden in Researcher in the Spotlight.
Collaborations like FlexCRAFT lie at the heart of Jeannette’s message. “Robotics and Artificial Intelligence have become crucial research areas at the TU/e.” With last year’s establishment of the Eindhoven Artificial Intelligence Systems Institute (EAISI), the university utilizes its traditional strengths in systems engineering and close ties with industry while aiming to leverage the huge potential of AI for real-world applications in industrial engineering systems.
TU/e’s logical next step was to set up an AI-enabled Manufacturing & Maintenance (AIMM) Lab, which is the first Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence (ICAI) Lab in Eindhoven. As Jeannette explains, “the AIMM lab aims to promote research together with the high-tech industry and to collaborate with industrial partners, including Marel. This new lab embodies the ambition of all participants to play a leading role in the further development of AI in the Netherlands.”
Such initiatives also represent a culture of collaboration, which has helped the Netherlands to punch above its weight and become one of the top three exporters of machinery and technology for the global agriculture and food processing industry. “This is something to be proud of,” Jeannette says. “In this country, we have the world market leaders in AgriFood machinery and technology on one hand and the expertise of TU/e and other universities on the other. By joining forces, we can create real impact in the global food supply chain. Together with Dutch AgriFood machine manufacturers, HTSC would therefore like to explore the possibilities of joint research into Smart Industry.”
“In my opinion,” she concludes, “the Netherlands cannot become the world’s food producer. But we are more than capable of transferring our knowledge, technology and machines to the rest of the world. It’s like the old saying ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. I look forward to continuing with our collaborations to make AgriFood machinery and technology even smarter.”