Consider walking into a supermarket, placing your order for fruit & vegetables and then getting them picked fresh from the rooftop garden. Today’s guest is Brandon Miller from Sprout Stack and that is exactly his vision for the future. His engineering has the potential to completely revolutionise the way society experiences food.
maybe it would get to a point that the technology would get so simple that stores could just have their own vertical farms built into as part of the stores
Brandon Miller is the CTO and Senior Electronics Design Engineer at Sprout Stack, a vertical hydroponics farm based on the Northern Beaches. Spout Stack is revolutionizing how fresh produce is grown and distributed by optimizing growing conditions and shortening the time from harvest to market. Brandon moved to Australia from the States in 2017 with his wife and two cats. Brandon holds a Bachelor’s degree in both Electrical and Computer Engineering with a focus on embedded electronics from Michigan Technological University.
In the States, Brandon worked for Alliance Laundry Systems, the world leader in commercial laundry equipment. During his five years at the company, he was in charge of their line of top-load washers. These products include any Speed Queen top-load washer that can be spotted in hotels, hospitals, laundromats, and on-premises laundry worldwide.
Brandon has used the engineering experience developing quality products at Alliance and his passion for technology to scale automation at Sprout Stack and grow yields. He is grateful to be growing plants more effectively with an amazing team and the ambitious goal of feeding more people every year.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 5 Episode 3
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Brandon Miller
Brandon: [00:00:00] So I think it’s that drive of just understanding stuff and solving problems and using those solutions to kind of help people has really motivated me a lot.
[00:00:10] Dom: [00:00:10] I love the problem solving. That’s always my favorite answer when people say that, because that’s the thing I love most about engineering is because a lot of people sort of say maths and science, but it’s just problem solving. So having that passion for problem solving is always kind of though, I think the best fundamental
[00:00:25] Mel: [00:00:25] was there anything that helped join the dots between problem solving and engineering? Was there an aha moment between realization of those two connections?
[00:00:36]Brandon: [00:00:36] I think it was just inspiration from my teachers a little bit. I had a really good science teacher in one of my earlier years as I was kind of getting into high school that used to do engineering in the military, the us military. He gave me one of his basic electronic books and I read it cover to cover. And I was like, Oh my gosh, this is amazing. And I could use this to build like a bunch of cool stuff. And actually at the time, once I got into high school, I was actually taking college courses as a electrical engineering technition. But I always knew I kind of wanted to do design. I mean and stuff like that. So when I graduated high school, I could either decide if I wanted to continue that degree or go on to like a actual electrical engineering degree program. And so I decided to go to that because I felt like if I had an engineering degree than a technician’s degree, probably wouldn’t be as useful.
[00:01:29] So but it was good to kind of intro to like, Learning what engineering was and kind of learning some of the basic concepts and preparing me for college.
[00:01:37] Dom: [00:01:37] So what sort of projects are you working on at the moment?
[00:01:40]Brandon: [00:01:40] So I’m currently working at sprout stack. We are a indoor vertical farm based on the Northern beaches of Sydney. The one kind of unique thing about us compared to some of the other indoor farms or indoor farm technologies in Sydney and in Australia is we grow our own plants.
[00:01:59] We design our own electronics technology, tech stack, and then we sell those to local markets. So we do all three which is kind of unique for vertical farming technologies and businesses within Australia. So, I’ve been with the company about a year and a half.
[00:02:17] And I’ve kind of designed our tech stack up and up and up. And we’re kind of on our third iteration of that technical stack. And I’m working on redesigning that for some new Ideas we want to try is different farms, as far as growing the crops, setting up different tests for testing, lights, testing pumps, that kind of thing.
[00:02:39]I’m also working on doing more integration as far as for the team we’re working on building an iPhone iOS app at the moment, too. So. I’m it. I do kind of a little bit of everything I work on. I’ve, I’ve designed all the hardware for all setups, and then I read all the firmware for it. And then I write a bunch of our server stuff.
[00:02:59] And now I’m working on the smart phones, smart app side of things. So,
[00:03:05] Dom: [00:03:05] Are there certain types of crops that you tend to specialize in or is it really just anything across the board?
[00:03:11] Brandon: [00:03:11] No it’s anything across the board. The nice thing about the farming we’re doing. We can, I mean, within reason, but we can pretty much grow whatever we want. We’re just, we’re currently growing in, in we started off growing in shipping containers. And that’s what we’re currently doing at the moment.
[00:03:25] So we just have rows of different types of plants growing in there. And we don’t focus on one plant in particular. What we do is sell mixed green salads. So different combinations of lettuce and raddish and a whole bunch of other things combined together into these packaged salads
[00:03:43] Mel: [00:03:43] Do you sell them in the local, like you said, Northern beaches. So do you sell them in the Northern beaches area or all over Sydney?
[00:03:48] Brandon: [00:03:48] Yeah. Mostly in the Northern beaches we sell to Harris farms in the Manly area and then a bunch of IGA’s are actually we would love to sell all over. Sydney are actually biggest problem right now. And I think a lot of common problem for vertical farming is Just scaling. We actually are just at the moment, trying to scale the design and the technology, and that’s kinda what this iteration three is all about.
[00:04:13] Kind of taking what we’ve learned over the last two iterations and scaling that so that we can produce more crops and thus more, have a bigger yield and more salads, and then get those out to more markets. So that’s our limiting factor kind of at the moment for us, we’re kind of maxed out as far as what we can produce.
[00:04:32] Mel: [00:04:32] I love, I have to, I’ve got a little soft spot in my heart for this, a controlled environment, agriculture and things like that. I so want to see. In this case, for instance one of those steel shipping containers and know that, Hey, that’s where my lettuce comes from. Like it’s just around the corner and you can install the containers in a local area and that’s where your produce comes from instead of on the back of his truck from, you know, hundreds of kilometers away. So.
[00:04:57] Brandon: [00:04:57] Absolutely. And that’s kind of one of the other things that has caused us to grow so quickly between different markets and demand for us is that we pretty much harvest almost the same day as we deliver to the groceries. So we’re, I would say we’re one of the fresh to salads in Sydney because we can go from harvest to the store shelves and like, 16 hours or less.
[00:05:22]And as you might know, too, like you said, the points you brought up about shipping, the plants essentially once you harvest them, they start losing those nutrients that are really beneficial. So the longer they sit in storage, the kind of more that nutrient content they lose.
[00:05:38] So the fact that we can get there so fast, it means they’re going to be fresh and nutritious when you pull them off the shelves.
[00:05:44] Mel: [00:05:44] It’s almost like from your back yard.
[00:05:45] Dom: [00:05:45] Well, even it sort of
[00:05:46] harks it harks back as well, too. Phil Wilkinson, when we were talking to him and he’s He was in refrigeration and one of his biggest issues was the fact that people buy things and then stick them in the fridge and leave them there for large periods of time.
[00:06:00] Whereas if we all want to be more energy efficient, the idea is to, to buy it just after it’s been picked or go down to the store and only buy what you’re going to use for the day. So having those close, local produce markets just means that it cuts down on all those other costs as well. So if you can, you can purchase it.
[00:06:18] And it’s only been grown sort of in your local area. And then you’re eating it basically from a day or two after it’s been picked, then you’re also cutting down on all the energy that’s required in transportation, sitting in refrigerated trucks and sitting in fridges in stores. And like, it’s just the, it’s amazing.
[00:06:36] What? Just one, yeah. One, one factor at the front end has this massive ripple effect on energy consumption across the board.
[00:06:44] Brandon: [00:06:44] I definitely agree with that. That’s the case. And I would add to that too. I feel like engineers, you’re trying to problem solve, but part of the problem solving process is you’re also trying to kind of work out inefficiencies in a process too.
[00:06:56] And that might be part of the problem solving. And if you just look at the transportation of products, especially Like mixed vegetables and greens. The inefficiencies there with transportation costs and even like CO2 emissions and stuff. There’s just some more efficient ways of doing it, like growing local.
[00:07:14] Mel: [00:07:14] Yeah, and something that Dom just touched on, it made me realize that you’re not just engineering a technical side of things. There’s also a societal change that is having to come across with the way that we deal with foods, but from an engineer’s perspective, such as yourself, what is the engineer’s role in the future of our food?
[00:07:34]Brandon: [00:07:34] Oh, I think it goes back to the problem solving question and efficiency question, and it’s about finding better ways to get that food to market, to make it so it’s efficient for growing. And I think. That’s exactly what vertical farm technology and vertical farms in general are trying to do is trying to cut back some of those efficiencies, like transportation costs, water usage you know, just efficiencies as far as getting it to market faster.
[00:08:01] I think my, my dream has always been, once I got into this, I thought, you know, it would be really cool if the technology got so simple that essentially it would start with vertical farms like we have now, but maybe it would get to a point that the technology would get so simple that stores could just have their own vertical farms built into as part of the stores.
[00:08:22] I mean, it’s great. I think we’re stepping in the right direction by growing it locally, in urban areas. But I think it’d be cool if you could even scale that even more to have technology set up at stores where they would just grow it on-premise I think that’d be a really cool idea.
[00:08:39] Mel: [00:08:39] I’m just picturing our local Coles with a rooftop garden,
[00:08:42] and you go, I’ll have a lettuce and it’s like, pick, there you go. I’ll have a
[00:08:46] Brandon: [00:08:46] Yeah. It takes that day or something like that.
[00:08:48] Mel: [00:08:48] You can walk into the shop and say, this is my order. And then it will actually send a little drone up there or something and collect your thing. And then when you finish, it’s like, here you go, freshman
[00:08:56] fresh from
[00:08:57] Dom: [00:08:57] the roof.
[00:08:58] It puts a new spin on the
[00:08:59] Mel: [00:08:59] fresh food
[00:09:00] Dom: [00:09:00] people, sloganeering
[00:09:03] Mel: [00:09:03] but then I, that, yeah, and that, I mean, that’s an entire revolution in the way that society deals with food and engineers have a huge role to play by the sounds of that.
[00:09:14]Dom: [00:09:14] Now, if we’re coming up to world engineer’s day what does world engineer’s day mean to you?
[00:09:18]Brandon: [00:09:18] Uh, Well, I think it’s kind of two things for me. I’ve had a lot of mentors coming through being an engineer engineering coming up in my career. So it’s a good day to kind of look back and appreciate the mentors I have in my life throughout the years that have, have helped me to get to where I am now and to help me to learn new things and learn new skills and stuff like that. And I think it’s also just a time to be excited about all the interesting and future technologies that engineers are working on to help people in our societies overcome major issues and one of them being food production as far as growing that more efficiently and having a good source of food and local. In your area. So those are the two things I think I’m really excited about as the day comes up.
[00:10:02] Mel: [00:10:02] I do, especially love the things that you’ve spoken about because the whole thing is World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development and with the sub topic as a healthy planet. But the role that you are talking about, the activities that you’re talking about is touches on UNSDG2, which is zero hunger, but there’s also that whole responsible consumption, which is number 12, there’s sustainable cities.
[00:10:22] I think, I reckon we could do that one, which is 11. Yeah. There’s the water, which is number six as the industry innovation infrastructure, which is number nine. It’s like,
[00:10:31] Dom: [00:10:31] 15 life on land
[00:10:32] Mel: [00:10:32] could
[00:10:32] Brandon: [00:10:32] Oh, yeah,
[00:10:33] Mel: [00:10:33] Climate Action number, 13 life on land. Yeah.
[00:10:37] Dom: [00:10:37] You pretty much got them all covered.
[00:10:39] Brandon: [00:10:39] the, well, that’s why, I mean, when I started working for sprout stack, I was really excited cause I’ve definitely worked in other engineering jobs that are really neat and there’s really cool technologies going on there, but for some of them I feel like, at least for me personally, sometimes you ask the question Is this making a difference? Is this helping people in? And like I said in the beginning, I like problem solving that involves helping communities or helping society or helping somebody like make a better living for their cell phones. To be honest, some projects I’ve worked on I’ve I haven’t felt as driven about them because I’m just like, Oh, this is another gadget or another gizmo, that kind of thing.
[00:11:17] But one of the reasons I’m really excited to work in that stack is because. I get that. I get, you know, I know that I’m making a difference in the local community and I’m also feeding the community as well. And it hits a lot of those kind of eco-friendly kind of topics that you just touched on.
[00:11:32] Mel: [00:11:32] I love that. Oh, that is such a nice way. Well, thank you so much, Brandon, for joining us today, it’s been
[00:11:36] Dom: [00:11:36] wonderful talking
[00:11:37] you. It has. It’s been great. Thank you so much for joining us.
And thank you for listening to Engineering Heroes as we present the new dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia. You can view shownotes, or more about our podcast by visiting our website. www.engineeringheroes.com.au
Be sure to mark the 4 of March in your diary and celebrate world engineering day by doing something special or extraordinary.
We look forward to you joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.