Here is a curious article from the Wall Street Journal (Japanese Farms Look to the ‘Cloud‘, Jan 18). On the one hand, it is a novel application of “manufacturing logic” and some serious analytics. On the other, it seems the article was written with buzzword bingo in mind. The setting in question is Japanese agriculture, an industry at a crossroad as farmers age. According to the article, 70% of Japanese farmers are over 60 and only 15% are under 50. This has created a role for technology. Where in the past, farmers have relied on their own expertise, technology has now enabled workers to be more productive while leveraging the knowledge of experienced farmers.
Now the head of a commercial farm in the southern Japanese prefecture of Miyazaki, Mr. [Hideaki] Shinpuku is back manning a desk with his eyes glued to a Web browser tracking every movement of his workers who handle 60 different fruits and vegetables across its 100 hectares. …
Shinpuku Seika has placed sensors out in its fields to collect readings on temperature, soil and moisture levels. Fujitsu’s computers then crunch the data and recommend when to start planting or what crops may be well-suited to a specific field. …
If Mr. Shinpuku wants to take a look at the crops for himself, he can call up online footage from the video cameras out in the fields. Workers can also take pictures on their mobile phones of potential problems like an infected crop. Those images are uploaded directly into the system so more experienced workers can diagnose the problem later.
The gains to this have been pretty impressive with cabbage production up 12% and carrot yields doubling.
Industrialized/mechanized agriculture is arguably the norm in the US, but this story has a different feel from a Michael Pollan book. In the US, highly mechanized farming often mean monoculture production. A farmer buys a combine and other big toys and then plants acres and acres of corn or soy beans. Here, technology is being used to support variety and in particular is letting unskilled workers access the expertize of Mr. Shinpuku.
OK, now its time to be snarky about buzzwords.
Shinpuku Seika is among the first farms to implement a Web-based “cloud computing” service developed by Japanese technology firm Fujitsu Ltd. Cloud computing is a loosely defined business term in which companies rent computing power from remote data centers via the Internet instead of buying machines to run software in house. …
The aim is to bring the concepts of lean manufacturing and continual improvement, or kaizen, to farming.
So we’ve got both cloud computing and kaizen in the same article. That might well be a first. It also raises the question of whether one would actually think of this as lean operations. I am not 100% sold on that idea. Fujitsu’s system allows for the tracking of workers’ movements and these can be first standardized and then improved over time. Similarly, it allows for the capture of information on various environmental parameters and the best way of dealing with different conditions can be determined. There are certainly aspects of lean operations in that. However, it also seems predicated on moving decision making away from front line workers. Instead of relying on front line workers to suggest and implement improvements they are dependent on the master farmer at his terminal in the cloud.