Micro droplets for optimal microclimate
Ultrasonic humidifiers that keep fruit and vegetables fresh are a familiar sight in today’s supermarkets. If you see one of these systems, chances are that it was manufactured by Contronics. This Dutch company develops so-called dry misting systems. Tobias Bakker, technical director at Contronics, explains: "The systems use micro droplets of 1 to 5 micrometres to create a microclimate above the shelf that offers the ideal temperature and humidity".
Contronics’ current focus is primarily on supermarkets, but they hope to leverage their position to eventually get the humidifiers installed in the entire chain - from harvest to shelf. The company has already sold about 15,000 systems in some 30 countries, with a market share of approximately 75 per cent.
Ecological and economic benefits
The humidifiers offer substantial ecological benefits. Bakker: "According to the large EU research project, Fresh Demo, in which our system was used, the waste flow in the entire chain can be reduced by up to 50 per cent. Our own calculations have shown that we can eliminate 3,362,534 kilos of food waste every year. Moreover, using the humidifiers saves on electricity and water. For example, fewer refrigerators are needed and the water consumption of the humidifiers is many times less than the amount of water required to process wasted food."
These ecological pluses are of substantial value, but the economic benefits are also obvious. "The products retain visible quality, which means that retailers don’t need to throw away as many products as they used to. In addition, the humidifiers save labour costs, partly because products don’t need to be moved into cold storage overnight. The result of these benefits is a short payback period of one to two and a half years, and after this initial period a humidifier delivers pure profit," Bakker adds.
Remote monitoring and control
Last year, Contronics launched a new generation of smart and fully digital humidifiers. Bakker: "This system keeps track of everything, but unfortunately you can only see what is happening when you’re on site. This is why we wanted to add connectivity to the system, allowing us to monitor and control it remotely."
Contronics approached Fourtress to develop a dashboard for monitoring and control. Fourtress – part of ICT Group – also values sustainability, and welcomed this assignment to help think about the possible technological solutions for unlocking the data. Fourtress' advised Contronics to implement connectivity via LoRaWAN (Long Range Wide Area Network), a low-speed communication platform for simple data packets. The smart humidifiers and sensors use LoRaWAN for their connectivity to a gateway that provides communication with the dashboard.
From dashboard development to algorithm fine-tuning
Fourtress’ main assignment entailed developing a dashboard for monitoring and managing the microclimate in a supermarket. However, Fourtress’ developers also contributed to the development of the new system in other areas.
Altogether, Fourtress was involved in developing the hardware and embedded software for the LoRaWAN connectivity, feeding back data from the dashboards to allow automatic adjustments of the systems, as well as fine-tuning the algorithm for automatic control via the selected humidity sensor.
Broad business case
The dashboard can do much more than providing insight into measurement data and adjusting systems in certain settings, Pim Grol, Fourtress’ general manager, explains. "The business case covers a much wider range. For instance, the dashboard and the underlying platform ensure that humidifiers constantly create ideal conditions. In addition, Contronics’ engineers can see when the equipment is not functioning properly, thus enabling predictive maintenance."
Just-enough and just-in-time data
Fourtress developed the solution in close cooperation with Contronics' R&D department. A key challenge was collecting so-called ‘just-enough and just-in-time’ data, says Grol. "If you want to be able to signal what is happening in real time on your dashboard, you need to collect data according to a certain measurement frequency. At the same time, you don't want to collect too much data, because that will create all kinds of challenges. We managed to find the right way of collecting data in close consultation with Contronics."
An important choice that Contronics and Fourtress made together was to set up the system in a modular way. Grol: "Larger rooms require more humidifiers. Contronics can now connect as many humidification systems as are required to one unit via a simple link. And in the unlikely case of a module failure, you only need to replace that specific module instead of the entire system."
"I have always felt very good about Fourtress and I am extremely happy with their professionals. In fact, I'm even a bit jealous of them. Having the Fourtress developers on-site allowed us to move ahead a lot easier.
Large-scale rollout later in 2023
The production model is now in its final stages, with three pilots currently running at retailers to fine-tune some final aspects. It is expected that the new system can be rolled out later in 2023.
Bakker: "There is a huge demand for the new system from abroad, and from a technical perspective, everything is ready and we can apply the system very quickly in a large number of supermarkets. What’s more, we can even set up a complete shop within five minutes. I would have preferred to have been a lot further ahead at this point in time, but unfortunately the availability of components is a bottleneck. However, things are moving in the right direction and we hope to be making substantial progress in the very near future."
Flexibility and quick switching
The cooperation with Fourtress progressed like clockwork, Bakker states. "I have always felt very good about Fourtress and I am extremely happy with their professionals. In fact, I'm even a bit jealous of them. Having the Fourtress developers on-site allowed us to move ahead a lot easier. What’s more, they obtained a much better feel for both our product and its application, which gave me peace of mind. Moreover, they are great and smart people who are pleasant to work with."
"What I also found extremely valuable was the high level of mutual transparency. This gave me a complete feeling of trust."
Tobias Bakker, Technical Director bij Contronics
Flexibility and decisiveness are guiding principles within Fourtress' business philosophy. Bakker has seen this reflected in the cooperation: "The best example of their flexibility was when Leendert van Wyk joined us to write the software. But when he was here, he also noted that there was something wrong with the hardware and he managed to fix the issue within a fortnight. What I also found extremely valuable was the high level of mutual transparency. This gave me a complete feeling of trust."
System that adjusts automatically
Now that the first version of the new system is in place, there’s a rapidly growing list of possible new features that we would like to add. Bakker: "Which features will be implemented obviously depends on how our business develops in the future, but I'm sure Fourtress will stay involved in one way or another."
One important new feature that is currently being worked on, is automatic adjustments based on actual on-site conditions. Bakker: "We can now start collecting targeted data thanks to Fourtress' data and dashboarding solution. Accurate and relevant data allow us to learn more, which helps us to design improvements and optimise the system. Fourtress has already helped us with adjustments to the system’s algorithm. I’m convinced that Fourtress' proactive approach and their data solutions will enable us to offer a system that can see what is going on in real time and that can promptly make automatic adjustments."
Grol: "By continuing to work together on the smartest possible system, we can take the combat against food waste issues to an even higher level."