The Nxtgen Hightech program was officially launched after final approval from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. With the support of the National Growth Fund, more than 330 parties from industry and knowledge institutes will work together on new high-tech machinery and production technologies to bring these developments to market. Wageningen University & Research's Agro Food Robotics and FME, the Dutch employers' organization for the technology industry, coordinate the agrifood domain of the program.
The Netherlands is currently a world leader in high-tech, precision equipment. However, this position is under threat due to political interests and increasing competition from other continents. The Nxtgen Hightech initiative aims to restore the Netherlands to the top spot while also contributing to solutions for major societal challenges. With an investment of around €1 billion until 2030 and the collaboration of 330 partners, it aims to boost the Dutch economy. The National Growth Fund is supporting this program with €450 million. According to Marc Hendrikse, the Board Chairman of Nxtgen Hightech, "The urgency for new technology applications is high, and we need solutions now." He also emphasizes the program's unique approach, where it not only focuses on new applications and technologies but also digitizes factories and the supply chain. This approach will not only strengthen the Dutch high-tech sector but also significantly increase the country's competitive position in the knowledge economy.
Third largest exporter of agrifood technology
Over the next seven years, the six primary domains - agrifood, biomedical production technology, energy, composite, laser-satellite communication, and semiconductors - will focus on developing smart solutions. The key technologies, systems engineering, and smart industry will play a critical role across these domains. For instance, the agrifood sector is exploring the use of smart solutions, sensor technology, and robotics applications in hands-free food processing. While these technologies are already widely used in some other domains, food production and processing have not yet benefited significantly from this growing trend of robotization and automation. Many operations are still performed manually, which is a barrier for the sector, especially as skilled people are scarce.
Erik Pekkeriet, program manager of Agro Food Robotics at WUR and domain coordinator for Nxtgen Hightech agrifood: "The Netherlands is currently the third largest exporter of agrifood technology and machines in the world, a strong international position that we want to maintain. We believe Nxtgen Hightech will help us to achieve a lot in a relatively short time and have a real impact in the sector both for AgTech and Dutch farmers, growers, and food processors. It should also lead to more sustainable agriculture and food processing. Dutch farmers, growers, and food producers will be the first to benefit from this."
Smarter autonomous harvesting systems and safer driverless agricultural machinery
Nxtgen Hightech's agrifood program consists of 17 consortia, ranging from smarter and more compact autonomous harvesting systems to flexible forms of packaging and logistic robots in greenhouse horticulture that are better able to handle the harvested products. Amongst others, WUR's Agro Food Robotics team takes part in investigating driverless agricultural machinery by further developing safety systems, farm-level simulation environments, and remote assistance, so operation can be safe and reliable. This would not only be a solution to the labor shortage in this sector; autonomous tractors could be much smaller, thus more sustainable.
One large overarching ecosystem project brings all the knowledge in hands-free food processing together. "We have selected research facilities that operate as a demo farm for Nxtgen Hightech and where the 17 use cases will be validated. We aim to bring the knowledge capital we gain with this program to other companies to, in turn, generate more new innovations," says Pekkeriet.