December Lunch Talk: How Engineering Adds more Value to Agriculture during the 4th Industrial Revolution
On December 7th, 2017, Manna (만나) CEA representative Taebyeong Jeon opened a lecture with the topic ‘How Engineering Adds more Value to Agriculture during the 4th Industrial Revolution’ at Startup KAIST Studio, 1st Floor. Manna CEA is a company where many KAIST alumni engineers, including representative Jeon, bio engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and experts from the field of agricultural studies work and cooperate. Through this lecture, representative Jeon introduced how engineers from different fields of study come together and work on agriculture and the kind of worldview he has for expanding the business.
Representative Taebyeong Jeon started off by saying that he wanted to introduce a new perspective to the students through his personal experience in working in an uncommon field of study. Representative Jeon entered KAIST in 2008 and when he was a freshmen, he was completely lost. Because he was from a public high school (일반고), he did not have any friends or mentors who could guide him. One day, coincidentally, he met with the current Manna CEA co-representative Aron Park. As a person who cars, representative Jeon made a car-making club called K-Alpha (케이알파) with co-representative Park. At the time there were only car-making clubs at KAIST that competed only in Korean competitions; there were no cases of entering in competitions abroad. Representative Jeon and Park sent an e-mail to Nampyeo Seo, the school chairman at the time, and the chairman gave a financial support of 37 million Korean won. With the support from the chairman, they made cars for one and a half years and eventually could enter a competition that was held in California, USA. Their peers who worked with them during the time are now either doing their PhD or working as a member of Manna CEA.
Ways to Make the World a Better Place through Engineering
Manna CEA corporation was established in 2013. The company is located in Jincheon, Chungcheongbuk-do and is currently running approximately 6000 pyeong (1 pyeong = about 3.3 meter squared) of farms. The company not only sells crops that it harvests from the farms, but it also exports its agricultural system in Korea and outside of Korea such as the United States, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Moreover, the company is constantly working on developing agriculture related patents. Right now, the company is expanding their business by continually attaining approximately 2 billion Korean won from investments.
Representative Jeon explained why he decided to work for a business in agriculture despite his interest in machines and vehicles. After experiencing the car manufacturing process, he felt that there are always people who are better than him in terms of skills and there always exist better technology even if he works diligently. He thought that if he works hard enough, he could have the potential to reach a level similar to those talented people, but it will be difficult for him to stand out significantly. Also, it made him doubt himself because the results were not that great compared to the effort he put in the work. For these reasons, representative Jeon did not have another choice but to stop pursuing vehicle-related occupations.
After serving in the military, representative Jeon coincidentally did a part-time job related to design outsourcing in an influential, major company. He got a request to revise whether a design for a plant farm factory has business value. This plant farm factory harvested plants indoors using artificial lighting. Representative Jeon concluded that the present plat farm factory system is very inefficient in terms of costs and that there are so many things that should be improved. After this experience, he attended school as he thought about a possible good solution for this problem.
The conditions of the current rural areas are quite poor. Due to aberrant climate changes and droughts, harvesting is not like before. In addition, because the population residing in rural areas are aging, there is a lack of people in the agricultural industry. Representative Jeon used technology to solve this problem with co-representative Park. They replaced LED artificial lights with cheap florescent light and changed expensive zinc or aluminum materials to wooden structures. Wood was relatively efficient cost-wise considering its volume and strength. With these modifications, the two engineers developed a system that was 60~80% cheaper than existing plat farm factories. They believed that the world will turn into a better place when they supply good equipment at a cheap price, continued to solve various problems step by step, and eventually initiated them to engage in business startup.
Making an Efficient and Beautiful Farm
Manna CEA produces crops and sells them through online commerce or sells them to big distribution industries such as Emart (이마트). Also, it sells their high-tech farming systems and plays a role in connecting the buyers with the market.
Manna CEA improved the farm through various technology. It utilizes drones to make efficient plans and reduced a great amount of costs by using a unique cultivation method. Sensors installed in farms of Manna CEA transfer information via Bluetooth without the need of a central computer. This kind of method is adequate for rural areas where Wifi is not readily available. Normally, sensors installed in farms would send data to a central computer and based on the data received, the central computer would decide how to control the farm. However, installing Wifi in gardening facilities or vinyl greenhouses is inefficient. Using his experience in farming, representative Jeon firmly decided to make a farm that can be controlled without the use of Wifi. As a result, Manna CEA developed a de-centralized messy network system that is able to charge the sensors with sunlight and information regarding the surroundings is transferred from sensor to sensor via Bluetooth. Some sensors are connected to a motor and can therefore take some kind of action if necessary. For example, if the temperature is too low, the motor sensor will be activated and will either open the windows or close the insulating curtains. Like this example, without the interference of people, the sensors are fully in control of the environment such as atmospheric temperature, humidity, amount of carbon dioxide and water, PH concentration, and nitrate, phosphorus, and potassium concentration. The state and environment of the farm is clearly organized on the dashboard automatically and thus administrators are able to focus just on employee management. Representative Jeon explained that he felt the need to start a business in the agricultural industry because agricultural technology is quite outdated and many of Korea’s talented workers are concentrated in the vehicle or semiconductor industry. Because there were no sensors or modules adequate for use in agricultural environments, he had to make them himself. Thanks to his efforts, nowadays, many of the sensors and modules are commercialized.
Crop cultivation methods also different from that of existing farms. Manna CEA utilizes the aquaponic method, a cultivation method through fish farming. At the beginning of civilization, the reason behind the rich soils around the Nile river in Egypt was hydroponics. Manna CEA farms eels, and uses water full of nutrients that plants need to grow, such as nitrogen, after purifying the water through bio-filter. Aquaponics, which is a method of farming using excretions from fish rather than from livestock, has many advantages. First, it is possible to move crops from place to place. Crops such as rucola, basil, and salad tend to grow sideways and therefore during the initial stage, there exists some inefficiency in the use of space. Crops have to be planted further away from each other because farmers have to consider the increase in size. However, by using aquaponics, the amount of crop production increases 20 to 30 times. For crops that have a fixed stem, such as tomatoes or strawberries, the amount of crop production increases 30 to 40%. Second, it is possible to reduce costs significantly. Water is circulated and so aqaponics uses only 2% of the amount of water used for cultivation in normal outdoor farms. Third, is is possible to cultivate plants in an environmentally-friendly manner without the use of chemicals or pesticides.
Through the experience of making automobiles, Manna CEA was able to reduce costs by improving structures used in existing farms. Normally farmers have to notion that they have to use zinc or iron for their structures. Manna CEA, on the other hand, chose wood as its material and made agricultural facilities that are 80% cheaper than those of other competing companies outside of Korea.
One one hand, the company constructs agricultural facilities that combine farms with cultural content. Manna CEA broke the stereotypical image of mundane farms and built a beautiful, entertaining farm that grabs the attention of young people. It exported its visually pleasing farm design to other countries; it even organized weddings for its employees at its farms.
Currently Manna CEA is collaborating with Daegwallyeong Samyang Ranch and plans to open various contents and facilities related to farming and agriculture starting from next year.
Representative Taebyeong Jeon introduced a variety of examples through his story of establishing Manna CEA, which showed that engineering can be applied to real-life situations to make the world a better place. It was a great chance for students to think about the great number of choices that they have for their future careers.
Q. Are there any research done regarding the reduction of cultivation period for other crops such as ginseng?
A. We are actively conducting research on crops. For example, it is possible to reduce the cultivation period of ginseng from 1 year to 3 months. Nevertheless, when we sold them in the market, not many people bought them. Distribution systems for ginseng and rice are quite firmly established and thus it is difficult to bring some kind of change to the system. Also, we received strong criticism from the farmers. It was an opportunity for us to realize the cruel nature of the market.
Q. When looking at the homepage, it seems like Manna CEA mainly deals with crops used in salads; what other crops are cultivated?
A. We started out with strawberry, tomato, and quinoa. Increasing the kinds of crops cultivated is not difficult once the agricultural system becomes stable. We aim to maximize the amount of sales per unit area. In the future, there will be strawberry crops and tomato crops based on new technology. We are currently working on that.
Q. What is the final goal that you wish to achieve as an agricultural industry?
A. The company was born after realizing that there is a lack of farmers in rural areas. People in their 50s are considered to be young. The average age is 67.5 years, and most people are almost in their 80s or 90s. Korean farms are at stake due to factors such as global climate change and crop prices. As of now, we are selling agricultural systems, but in the future we hope to expand our business to crop distribution by building a food storage. We consider the president of Halim(하림) as our role model. He made NS Home Shopping (NS홈쇼핑) and recently took over STX Pan Ocean and is now in charge of crop distribution. Likewise, ultimately, we are aiming to work on the food security of the country.
Q. I felt that the company have a tendency to solve many problems in creative ways that utilize engineering; did the two representatives possess this kind of creativity beforehand, or did the two representatives learn a new kind of business mind from their experience?
A. We always think of technology by comparing it with vehicles; a car company cannot produce all of the components used in its vehicle. It would receive some parts from other companies or it would develop its own technology necessary for vehicle production. Similarly, we initially planed to buy a competitive technology for our farms, but we were not able to find an adequate technology that meet our needs. So, inevitably, we developed our own technology because ‘we had to’. We did not develop technology merely for the intention of boasting or showing-off; we developed our technology because we needed to.
Q. How do you control the water quality while selecting an aquaponic method?
A. We use the water supply system as using underground water has a risk of colon bacillus infection, and we control the PH concentration and evaporate all the chlorine. If nitrate concentration increases, a signal that either the number of fish or the amount of fish food increased, the computer detects the change and reduces the concentration. If the PH concentration increases, a signal that microorganisms are not active enough, the computer takes action to improve the environment.