How To Automate A Greenhouse At Any Size
Equipment manufacturers are simplifying and upgrading their machines, making it easier for small, medium and large growers to cut costs and improve workflow.
March 5, 2013
Like other business owners who are constantly working to improve their companies, growers are looking for ways to lower their costs and become more efficient. Automation is one way they can do this. Here are some recent upgrades to equipment that have applications for all growers.
Pot Filling Made EZ
Mitchell Ellis at Mitchell Ellis Products Inc., in Semmes, Ala., is eager to talk about the company's EZ Potter potting machine. Part of that enthusiasm is due to the fact that the EZ Potter system, which was introduced last year, is unlike any other potting machine on the market.
Because Ellis thinks the machine is so unique, the company has filed a patent application. For example, EZ Potter is the first potting machine equipped with an indexing conveyor belt.
"If a grower wants to plant up to 7-gallon containers, there are two rails to adjust as the pots are placed on the machine," Ellis says, emphasizing a lack of pot holders reduces set up time and allows for a wider variety of container shapes and sizes. "Unlike every other potting machine with pot holders, it doesn’t matter how much space is between the pots when they are set on the belt. The pots pass a sensor that trips a drill. The drill comes down and drills a hole. The machine's dual soil returns bring back spilled soil.
"Also, unlike other machines in which the drill continuously goes up and down, the drill on the EZ Potter can stay in the up position so the machine operates in fill-only mode. The drill mechanism can also be removed so that it can be used as a dibbler," he says.
While the EZ Potter is equipped with a drill, the company has built two other models with additional features. The EZ Potter Pro has a drill, a longer belt and a rotary brush to remove excess soil. The Pro model can be used to fill cell pack flats and shuttle tray containers and the added brush removes excess soil. The EZ Potter Pro Plus has all of the features of the Pro model but can also be equipped with a 4-yard soil hopper.
"The EZ Potter is so simple to operate, we placed two QR codes on the machine’s electrical box," Ellis says. "One manual is for English, and the other is for Spanish. A grower can use a smart phone to watch a video on how to operate the machine."
But the real reason Ellis is so enthusiastic when discussing the machine is because it was designed and built by his son Sean.
"Sean was always trying to figure out how to build machines simpler so that they would be easier for growers to use," Ellis says. "He wanted to create something that would be simple to use and easy to work on."
For more: 251-649-6466; EllisProducts.com
The Appeal Of Transplant Versatility
Pischek Industries Inc. in Mobile, Ala., has been selling U.K.-based Hamilton Design equipment in the U.S. for about two years. The export management company has been distributing Hamilton products internationally for 17 years.
Owner and President Florencia Pischek says one of the Hamilton machines that has garnered a lot of interest at trade shows is the TEA (Applied Electronic Technology) 600 transplanter.
"This transplanter was recently revamped to be a lot more compact," Pischek says. "It's also a lot faster and more user-friendly than the model that came out ten years ago. It uses compact heads that travel twice as fast as other manufacturers' transplanters. A four-head equipped TEA600 can transplant about 6,400 plants per hour."
Trays can be fed lengthwise or widthwise through the TEA600 transplanter, increasing planting options.
The transplanter can also support various types of plants. The switch from plant to plant can be made quickly and easily by simply pushing a few buttons. This transplanter can handle both seed plugs and vegetative cutting liners as long as the plants have some type of root system.
It can also water and transplant the plants at the same time. The transplanter is equipped with pneumatic tires that make it easy to move it from one location to another.
For more: call Pischek Industries at 251-661-6847 or visit Hamilton-Design.co.uk
Tools For On-Time Production
Whether growers are using man or machine to transplant, maximizing the performance of the transplanting equipment or the employee transplant line is essential.
AgriNomix in Oberlin, Ohio, is offering a Production Pace Timer that can determine in live time how fast an automated or manual transplanting line is operating. The timer can display specific information to the planting line crew, including current and next container type, plant species and variety, batch size, number of containers produced, goal, deviation from goal, time until next plant and down time.
"One of the biggest problems with getting the most from machines is down time," says Bill Bissell, design specialist/sales at AgriNomix. “What some people don’t realize is that every time you change varieties, containers, labels, etc., a transplanter is not running, so it’s not producing anything. We have included down time in the Production Pace Timer."
Bissell says determining how much time a transplant line isn't running during a shift or a production run enables growers to make changes in the operating procedures to be more efficient.
The Production Pace Timer system is relatively easy to set up. It requires an input device, like a photo eye or whisker switch to send counts to a programmable logic controller, and an Ethernet connection to transfer the data to a local or remote laptop personal computer. The computer equipped with the Production Pace Timer software in conjunction with a video monitor in the production area can show live performance results. The data is also mobile ready and can be viewed remotely on a smart phone or remote computer via a browser. Data for each production run is saved locally on the computer and is easily exportable in a CSV format to a USB device or to a location on a grower’s network.
Another question Bissell hears from growers is, "How fast should we be running?"
"There should be a reasonable expectation of rate per hour for the planting line to produce for each product type,” he says. "This production rate is related to the number of personnel on the planting line. Management can develop these rates, and then input an expected production rate for a product on the screen. The screen will then present plus or minus in regards to the actual production rate."
Live feedback of the production line provided by the pace timer enables a transplanting crew to be on pace within a few minutes of starting the production line in the morning or after a break.
The Effect On Efficiency
Bissell says Production Pace Timer has applications for growers of every size.
"Small growers today have to be as or more efficient as large growers," he says. "Small growers are likely to have small production runs of each product.
"A grower may be running a transplanting line at as low as 50 percent efficiency for half a shift before he realizes it. This means a grower threw away 25 percent of the labor for the day. That isn’t just the personnel planting, that’s everyone on the line."
For more: 440-774-2981; Agrinomix.com
David Kuack (email@example.com) is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.