Labor Savers

While energy costs may be weighing heavily on our minds in chilly November, labor continues to be the greatest cost in running greenhouse operations. As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, we thought it would be good to present 25 ideas to help you save labor.

Basic Concepts

1) Identify product movement and activities. “When it comes to looking at ways to save labor, it’s really happening in front of you every day,” says Mike Kanczak, a sales representative for Agrinomix, which provides automated solutions for growers. “Once you are trained to look for it, you can see it. If someone is touching something, there is a cost associated with that. Any type of movement or activity with people has a cost associated with it. Once you identify extraneous movement and activities, the next question is, ‘Is this something people have to do or something a machine can do?'”

2) Collect data on which operations require the greatest amount of time. John Bartok, Extension professor emeritus and agricultural engineer from the University of Connecticut, has been helping growers achieve efficiencies with labor and energy use for decades. He says the key areas that require the most labor are transplanting, hand watering, plant selection for shipping, and moving plants in and out of growing areas.

3) Track true labor use with software. Gain an understanding of your cost per unit and quantity per hour and the impact changes in workflow make by tracking labor. Handheld devices make this even easier. One program designed for our industry is Picas Labor Tracking.

4) Don’t create extra work to keep people busy. Many growers will find more work for employees to do in the off season to justify keeping them year-round. “A lot of growers will have inefficiencies brought on by that thought process,” Kanczak says. “They think it’s okay if it’s wasteful if the person is already here. Rather than fill pots as needed, they will fill in the off season, thinking it doesn’t cost anything and they can work ahead. But the inventory has more cost than hours people are working. In addition to filling the pots, you have to palletize them with shrinkwrap, store them, pay someone to go find them, and move them. If you’re running labor at a different time of the season because it costs less than when you need it, there is a lot of additional cost in handling.”

5) Slow down to work more productively. “Because of our seasonal nature and critical timing of holiday crops, we feel we need to go fast but often find it ends up affecting quality,” Kanczak says. “If machinery outpaces your ability to bring material to the production area or take material away, you have to stop and wait. The perception is that we’re working fast and productively. There’s a lot of stuff flying around, but at the end of the day, the actual throughput doesn’t support this notion. Slowing down flies in the face of everything production people are told to do.”

6) Reduce walking time. “Walking adds considerable time to the cost of plants,” Bartok says. “An average time to pick up or set down a flat of plants is 1.5 seconds. Carrying or walking can be figured at 4 feet per second. At a $10/hour labor rate, making a round trip 10 feet away to place a flat of plants on a bench adds 2 cents to the cost. Walking to the far end of a 100-foot greenhouse costs 15 cents.”

7) Standardize your operations. Keep the number and types of containers to a minimum to reduce inventory and time needed to make changes to equipment, Bartok says. “When possible, ship in standard units, such as carts or pallets. This simplifies loading and invoicing, too.”

Equipment

8) Keep things simple. Equipment or systems that you and your employees understand work best, Bartok says. “It is easier to upgrade a basic system than to replace a complex one that doesn’t do the job,” he says. “I frequently see expensive equipment sitting idle in a corner because it didn’t perform the way the grower had hoped.”

9) Analyze your needs thoroughly. Equipment is expensive to own. Consideration should be given to where your resources will give the greatest return to the business, Bartok says. “An automatic watering system that can be used year-round may be a better choice than a precision seeder that will be used only 10 days a year,” he says. “Compare alternatives on a simple payback basis–divide the initial cost of new equipment by savings realized per year.”

10) Automate jobs that are repetitive, tedious or time consuming. Container filling, plant spacing, moving plants and watering are good examples, Bartok says.

11) Can’t beat booms. Growers consistently report the fastest return on investment with watering booms. “For uniform watering, it is hard to beat a watering boom,” Bartok says. “Commercial booms generally have computerized controls that allow double watering, skipping sections and multiple nozzles that change the rate of application.”

12) Install equipment that reduces peak period labor requirements. “Carts or conveyors can move plants more quickly than hand carrying,” Bartok says. “These may also reduce the need to hire and manage more employees.”

13) Select equipment that will pace workers. Conveyor belts work well for potting, transplanting and packaging, providing uniformity and consistency, Bartok says. A variable speed motor adjusts the belt speed.

14) Consider alternatives to purchasing equipment. Renting, leasing or sharing with a neighbor allows the use of equipment for short periods of time without a large investment, Bartok says.

Production Lines

15) Consider a movable transplanting table. “An alternate work station is a movable transplanting table that is placed in the greenhouse next to where containers will be grown,” Bartok says. “The table should be kept close to the growing area to reduce walking with the containers. Prefilled containers can be supplied on pallets near the work area.”
 
16) Reconfigure the way production lines are set up. Gary Cortes of FlowVision LLC, who has been working with growers on implementing lean manufacturing processes, says something as simple as rearranging the way transplanting and sticking lines are set up and placement of workers can improve productivity by as much as 40 percent. For instance, a triangular setup could be better than linear if workers have easier access to supplies within reach.

17) Process the same types of trays together. Minimize changeover disruptions in the transplanting line by running the same size trays together. Each changeover leaves the machine idle for 10 to 12 minutes, Cortes says.

18) Label or tag plants when they are transplanted to reduce labor during shipping.

19) Plant crops consistently. “Something as simple as transplanting depth affects growth and what’s available for sale,” Kanczak says. “If crops are not uniform, labor is involved with using chemicals to correct them, or pull some product that’s ready and leaving the rest behind and not gaining full utilization of the facilities. You also could have the production area more controlled and supervised, leading to greater consistency and efficiency, better crop timing and utilization of space. If you can move product into the greenhouses more quickly and get extra turns per season, you can get extra acres worth of plants out of the same facility.”

Shipping

20) Don’t produce faster than you can ship. “As the technologies in production have increased, the ability to ship product is a bottleneck in operations,” Kanczak says. “If you produce plants faster than you have a place to put them, you haven’t gained any real benefits.”

21) Load in teams. “Select a team of two or three employees to gather and prepare an individual truck load,” Bartok says. “They should be experienced in plant identification and loading.”

22) Create a dock supermarket for pulling orders. Instead of pulling each order from the greenhouse, gather a half day’s worth of inventory in a central location, Cortes says. “In the morning, workers can pick from the supermarket and load trucks right away or stage the loads,” he says. “Instead of going back to the greenhouse 10 times to pick 10 orders, go back once or twice to the supermarket.”

23) Make boxes as you need them. Prebuilding boxes takes up space compared to flat cartons and requires more handling. It’s better to build the boxes during shipping than have them be in the way, Cortes says.

24) Market plants by full carts or pallets to reduce errors in both assembly and delivery. This also makes invoicing easier, Bartok says.

25) Purchase a hydraulic tailgate to speed loading and unloading carts.

As you gear up for your next busy season, we hope these tips help you manage your labor costs.

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