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Schneider Electric has partnered with local entrepreneur David Soo to create Australia’s first growing facility for vanilla beans, the second most valuable spice in the world.

The Vanilla Dome in Newcastle, New South Wales, uses Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure Food and Beverage technology solutions to replicate the delicate conditions needed to grow vanilla beans which are normally produced in tropical regions.

“Vanilla is exceptionally difficult to grow, and 80 per cent of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar from a French vine called Bourbon Vanilla,” Soo said.

“Pollination has to be done by hand and drying and fermenting is a long and painstaking process.

“Using Schneider Electric technology allows us to offer a solution to growing vanilla in a sustainable way. We can create a Madagascan climate in Newcastle in the middle of winter.”

Soo said the idea originally came to him while having dinner with a chef who held an export license for Papua New Guinea vanilla beans, but doing business there was very dangerous.

“He said vanilla was very expensive, there isn’t enough in the world, and it was used in many food and beverage products,” he added.

Vanilla is worth more by weight than silver because of a number of factors, including vanilla bean theft, complex pollination, extreme tropical weather, the move away from artificial vanilla and the rise of natural food.

Australia cannot produce international standard vanilla in commercial quality due to a limited tropical area, the high cost of labour and the difficulties associated with producing the green beans and subsequently processing them to final product which is ‘black vanilla’ beans.

By initiating a future farming practice that uses available connected, smart and efficient technology farmers and manufacturers with bold ideas can digitally transform their business.

The Schneider Electric automation system created a tropical climate through the opening and closing of vents, turning on misting and heating systems and managing irrigation and humidity.

The vanilla plants grow on a three dimensional rotating trellis.

By rotating and repositioning the plants daily, they grow faster and healthier. The solution also allows for central management and critical response over a wide area network to deal with problems quickly and efficiently either at the site or remotely via a mobile device.

The dome is 11 metres in diameter and has approximately 95sqm of floor space, an internal volume of 350 cubic metres, and can withstand 160-kilometre winds, rain and hail.

It can hold 200 vines each with a length of 20 metres, the equivalent of 4km of vines to produce a yield of 40,000 beans per harvest when fully mature.

Soo is now planning to develop and expand Dome Greenhouse technology across Australia.

The director of industrial automation at Schneider Electric, Brad Yager, said projects like Vanilla Dome represent the future of horticulture.

“The 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,” Yager said.

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