Advanced Automation

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Advanced Automation

A one-gallon pot is no longer just a one-gallon pot for growers who serve the home improvement chains and mass merchandisers. Retailers want to differentiate with their own pricepoint, sticker and style, and that creates more costs for growers.

For a grower like Garden State Growers, which serves Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart, keeping production for its three biggest accounts in separate bays is a priority. Shipping a Lowe’s pot to a Home Depot store is an obvious no-no, and general manager Roy den Hollander believes equipment and automation play a big role in Garden State’s accurate track record.

“All three retailers want their logo on pots,” den Hollander says. “We’re looking to drop the starter pot into another pot that has the customer-specific information on it. Whether a machine strips one pot and puts on another or puts a pot over starter pots, the idea is to have pots for Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart.”

Setting An Example

Unfortunately, automation has yet to advance to the point den Hollander describes, but Garden State has done an excellent job implementing new equipment and tweaking it to its specific needs in recent years. Perhaps the most impressive pieces of equipment at Garden State are two mobile production lines for potted items. One starts in the greenhouse and runs through hundreds of feet of hoops houses. The other is a mobile conveyor in the field, where plugs are planted in pots, placed on a moving belt and finally dropped into the field where they’re produced.

The mobile conveyor system was new to Garden State last year. Account manager Jerry Montervino describes it as a “converted tractor trailer” that’s used mainly for 2-gallon perennials.

“Just think of the time it saves,” Montervino says. “There’s miles between the fields and the greenhouse. We would have to truck it out there with the racks. Now, we’re eliminating time and labor. They’ll plant certain items out there right in the field.”

The outdoor production line was Garden State’s own idea, den Hollander says. Now, the operation can produce 4,000 pots per hour, and workers no longer have to lug 2-gallon containers two at a time out into the field. The conveyor belt ends in the row in which each container sits, meaning less strenuous labor for workers and more labor savings for the operation.

“We looked and saw we were producing all this product in house and hauling it into the fields,” den Hollander says. “We wanted to skip that step of growing in one place and setting it down in the other.”

Shoring Up With Speed

Garden State’s indoor conveyor system through hoop houses is another labor saver.

“Hoop houses serve a purpose but they are not necessarily an efficient means of operating,” den Hollander says. “They’re low cost initially but they’re labor intensive. We tried to reduce labor by adding some automation to the hoops. So what we did was create a conveyor belt system that starts in our production area and leads to all these houses and out to the shipping area. They’re producing and shipping at the same time into all these houses.”

To den Hollander, the system has also helped Garden State meet the needs of its biggest customers. He used to plan most orders about a week in advance. Now, he can prepare orders a day or two ahead of time, and the operation is much more capable of reacting in a day’s notice and preparing a large order if needed.

“We’ve been having better weather, which means there’s more demand and we need to act faster here to get the product out,” den Hollander says. “Not only are we saving on labor, we’re saving on time so we’re doing a better job for the customer.”

One Garden State customer in particular, Walmart, seeks inventory days on hand, not weeks on hand. The conveyor system brings product to one location at Garden State. Now, its workers are able to pick faster, analyze inventory more efficiently and better sort and assemble orders by colors.

Assessing Automation

Besides the conveyor systems, an Echo basket system, rolling benches, shade curtains and watering booms and conveyors are among Garden State’s other equipment.

“We’ve invested a lot of capital in improving efficiency,” den Hollander says. “Now, we’re investing in more coverage.” Before Garden State makes any equipment investment, den Hollander must have an idea of how quickly the operation will see a return.

He prefers to see a return on investments (ROI) in one year, and all investments are made before den Hollander review’s the operation’s labor.

“Our biggest factor is how quick our ROI is,” den Hollander says. “For us, because we were on the high end of our labor percent of sales before major investments, our ROI was very quick. For us, an investment in equipment was a simple decision.”

Those who serve the home improvement chains and mass merchandisers, like Garden State Growers, are expected to set efficiency standards. Automation and equipment certainly help Garden State meet its customers’ needs, and Garden State is continuously looking for ways to make its relationships with Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart better. Equipment and automation are one such way.

“If we don’t invest in efficiency we’ll be phased out in a few years,” den Hollander says. “Everybody’s going to need to be efficient because labor costs keep going up. No matter how big or small you are, you definitely need to be efficient at what you do."

Kevin Yanik is the former managing editor of Greenhouse Grower.

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