Greenhouse Automation: Rise Of The Machines

Automation is hardly a new topic in greenhouse production. Industry suppliers and greenhouse operations themselves have been building new equipment and finding ways to cut production costs for decades. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting things happening out there.

Automation For All

The capital investment required for many of the transplanters, computer systems and high-end solutions for moving product around traditionally limited automation to the big operations that can afford it. That’s changing.

Whether it’s concerns about health care costs or the availability of workers, labor issues have more smaller and medium-sized growers trying to find ways to automate, says Clay Crider, owner of CRS Supply Group. “It’s amazing to see the growers asking about Dutch trays now. In the past they wouldn’t even talk about it because of the upfront costs. Now they say they really have to cut their labor. They almost can’t afford not to do it.”

“We’re seeing more growers moving toward dependable equipment they know is not going to call in sick,” agrees Chris Lundgren, general manager of Cherry Creek Systems. “It’s not going to quit on them. It’s not seasonal – they don’t have to hire and fire it. I think more people are open minded to change these days than they ever have been.”

Making Equipment Do More

Labor costs aren’t the only factor driving automation. “Whether they are trying to make more efficient use of space or reduce energy or transportation costs, everybody is trying to become more efficient in the way they do things,” Crider says.

One way growers are adapting is by trying to find new ways to get pieces of equipment to perform multiple tasks.

“Growers are looking to get something that combines their irrigation with their pesticide applications, and maybe it’s all part of their product transport,” Lundgren says. “You might put shelving on a boom that brings the plants from the back of the house to the front, or integrate a conveyor on a boom alongside an Echoveyor system that runs the length of the bay,” he says.

Innovations like that can cut down on employees making endless trips back and forth to a cart and require fewer people setting down plants in the greenhouse.

Transplanting equipment is becoming more flexible, too, says Robert Lando, president and owner of Agrinomix.

“With so much growth in container types and sizes in the last decade, some growers now find 10-year-old transplanters, which were designed to be highly efficient on flats, are now planting less than a third of their crops. As growers continue to diversify their container and variety offerings, we’ve made strides on transplanter flexibility allowing shorter, highly efficient production runs with quick changeovers. That allows for 75 percent of production to be automated once again,” Lando says.

Resolving Labeling Issues

New requirements from big customers are driving changes in the product labeling process, too.

“There’s a big difference in what’s driving automation in labeling than in other parts of the production process,” says Joseph Gonnella, president of Great Lakes Label. “The big box retailers are changing the whole nature of their demands around UPCs and bar codes. It is causing a much more rapid transition to automation in labeling than you might normally see.”

The variety of data customers want in the bar code and within the label itself is growing exponentially, says Great Lakes Label CEO Tony Cook.

“One customer, for example, may want the week of ship on the label. That’s a significant problem based on the current supply chain flow,” Cook says. “If the grower is ordering pots from one of the container manufacturers, they’re going to have a problem knowing the week of shipment. For one thing, there’s often a six- to eight-week lead time on pre-labeled containers and then they’re going to have to use a UPC specific to a particular product for a particular customer and know they’re shipping it a particular week.”

Requests for genera-specific labels have growers scrambling as well, Lando says.

“Over the years, we have supplied label applicators that are placed on both sides of production lines, to label pots on both sides of the flat. Unfortunately, as labels become more plant specific, production runs get shorter and setup changes become more frequent,” he says. Agrinomix is working on a high-speed labeling system that gives growers the opportunity to efficiently pre-label their pots offline.

“We usually abhor double handling, but having a high-speed machine on site that will dispense, label and restack containers prior to production keeps lines running at peak performance and eliminates the costly inevitability of employees waiting around for lines to restart,” Lando says.

Cook says labeling at the grower level is likely to become a necessity for many producers. “The complexity of what is being asked for is moving far beyond what we’re used to seeing. In addition to the week ship date, for fall mums one of the retailers is telling its customers that the bar code should not just be genera, but also color specific,” he says. “How else do you do that but print on demand?”

Moving Automation Outdoors

Technology is common inside the greenhouse, of course, but Lundgren says he is seeing more and more people looking at their outdoor production as an area that could benefit from automation.

“We’ve always kind of thrown plants outside and given them the fertilizer and water they need,” he says. “The old thought was, ‘Well, it’s just sitting outside. It’s not inside the structure so it’s not costing me in heat. If I have to spend a little more on the labor side, it’ll kind of even out.’ I see a lot of growers using old carts and double handling plants. It’s very inefficient.”

When margins tighten, however, growers find ways to squeeze out unnecessary costs. “Growers are making less per pot than they were four or five years ago based on input costs and what they’re getting for their product. Now they’re saying, ‘We’re not breaking even, so I have to be more efficient in what I’m doing outdoors,’” he says. “Whether it’s portable conveyor systems or bigger booms, I think a trend we’re going to see over the next five to 10 years is outdoor areas are going to become more automated and more efficient.”

Leave a Reply

4 comments on “Greenhouse Automation: Rise Of The Machines

More From Equipment...

October 9, 2015

New Biochemical Miticide Is Designed To Combat Varroa Mites In Beehives

EPA recently registered Potassium Salts of Hops Beta Acids (K-HBAs), which is intended to fit into a rotation program to battle resistance.

Read More
Seed Meets Technology

October 9, 2015

Seed Meets Technology Event Highlights Advancements In Vegetable And Bedding Plant Breeding

The second-annual event, held in The Netherlands in September, featured demonstrations, trial fields and presentations on green chemistries for seeds, hydroponics and phenotyping.

Read More

October 8, 2015

Industry Standards For Greenhouse Lighting On The Horizon

As the use of LEDs has risen among greenhouse growers, so have concerns about the best way to measure and compare the many LED light products across the market. As a result, the lighting industry is responding to a call for greater transparency and the development of standardized measuring and testing methods.

Read More
Latest Stories

October 8, 2015

Industry Standards For Greenhouse Lighting On The Horiz…

As the use of LEDs has risen among greenhouse growers, so have concerns about the best way to measure and compare the many LED light products across the market. As a result, the lighting industry is responding to a call for greater transparency and the development of standardized measuring and testing methods.

Read More

September 28, 2015

11 Products For Precision Greenhouse Growing

These new options in equipment, automation, structures, lighting and software are designed to help growers run their operations with efficiency and accuracy and at a lower cost.

Read More
Laura Drotleff

September 25, 2015

Growers Solve Problems With Precision Horticulture

My dad’s hands are covered with sores, nicks, scratches and bruises. It’s the ongoing reward — or drawback — of his ingenuity, as he’s constantly wrenching on equipment or constructing new innovations that will help him get work done more efficiently on the farm. As a kid, I would always marvel at his toughness, and how he would barely notice a new wound, shrugging it off as he kept working, driven to complete his work and bring his idea to fruition. He’s still at it today, and his hands tell the story of the many projects he’s completed over the years. I’m guessing many of you can relate, and your hands look similar to my dad’s. After all, ingenuity is the name of the game in this business, where creative thinking to solve problems often leads to revolutionary solutions that automate production, save labor and cut costs. That’s easy to […]

Read More

September 24, 2015

AgriNomix Helps Keepsake Plants Cut Labor Costs With Au…

Keepsake Plants reduced labor for trimming Hydrangeas from 60 people to 28 by automating the process with AgriNomix Venti Trimmers.

Read More

September 24, 2015

4 Dramm Products That Put The Precision Into Growing

When accuracy counts, the right tool makes all the difference. New products from Dramm put tools in growers hands to get the job done efficiently.

Read More

September 24, 2015

How Spring Meadow Nursery’s Custom Sorting Machine Kee…

The Michigan-based nursery uses automation to cut apart trays of immature plants and regroups them into new trays of similar-sized plants.

Read More
Figure 3. Sole-source lighting in a multi-layer vertical growing system utilizing hydroponics for vegetable production.

September 23, 2015

MSU Offers New Greenhouse Lighting Online Course For Gr…

  Michigan State University Extension is now offering a non-credit, pre-recorded online course on greenhouse and horticultural lighting. The lighting course is intended for greenhouse and ornamental plant growers and others interested learning about the fundamental concepts about how plants respond to light quality, quantity and in duration. It provides introductory to moderately-challenging content primarily based on experiments performed at Michigan State and Purdue Universities. This is the second course in the College of Knowledge Online series offered on the national Extension website. The first course was Floriculture Root Zone Management, also available online. What Growers Will Learn From Taking This Course The 3-hours of pre-recorded lecture and video demonstrations are divided into seven units. The first and second units cover the properties of light and its importance for plant growth and development. The third unit discusses how light quality influences stem extension and flowering. The fourth unit of the course teaches […]

Read More
ArmstrongGrowers Hanging Basket Area

September 22, 2015

Sole-Source Lighting In Horticulture: Bedding Plant Plu…

Researchers determine how sole-source LED lighting can be used effectively for the production of bedding plant seedlings.

Read More

September 18, 2015

Visser North America To Provide Mayer Potting Machines …

Visser North America (NA) will now be the official North American supplier for sales, service and parts provider of Mayer potting machines and equipment. The Mayer premium line of potting machines is the latest addition to the Visser NA lineup, including the NewLux, Logitec Plus and Visser product lines. “Much like our current product lines, Mayer is a leading provider of potting machines and further horticultural equipment worldwide and its brand represents quality in our industry,” says Kevin Vander Ploeg, president of Visser NA. “We believe in providing our customers with the best solution for their operation with ongoing support and service excellence. Naturally, we are pleased to add Mayer to our product line up.” Mayer, a German company manufacturing in Europe and with a global presence, has been designing and manufacturing potting machines since 1967. The Mayer product range includes solutions for the entire process chain from soil preparation to filling of pots/trays […]

Read More
Costa Farms’ new solar panels will offset 493,487 pounds of carbon dioxide annually

September 15, 2015

Costa Farms Ramps Up Sustainability Efforts With Solar …

Costa Farms is seeking to make sustainability a top priority at its headquarters and two other buildings in Miami with the recent construction of new solar panels, which will replace 25 percent of the company's power usage with solar energy.

Read More
Trays move on an overhead conveyor to the end of the production line, where workers carefully pack the cleaned, sized, graded, counted and sorted Calla tubers

September 14, 2015

Golden State Bulb Growers Increases Efficiency With New…

Necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s certainly true for Golden State Bulb Growers. The Moss Landing, Calif., operation, which supplies its Callafornia Calla Lily bulbs to wholesale markets around the world, was in need of a more streamlined and less labor-intensive solution to grade and sort bulbs. So Golden State’s management team got creative and started talking with MAF Industries, part of the MAF-RODA Group that specializes in the design and manufacture of grading, packing, palletizing and handling fresh fruit and vegetable systems. The manufacturer was willing to work with Golden State on the Calla Lily bulb grading and sorting machine design process. This resulted in Golden State Bulb Growers investing $700,000 to purchase the new grading system to better serve the needs of its customers, increasing uniformity and productivity in its Callafornia Callas bulb processing. Investing in the new system has also allowed Golden State Bulb Growers […]

Read More
Figure 1. Mustard microgreens grown under sole-source (SS) lighting using light-emitting diode (LED) arrays.

August 21, 2015

Sole-Source LED Lighting In Horticulture: Microgreens P…

In Part 2 of a four-part lighting series highlighting the multiple uses of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), researchers examine the effects of sole-source LED lighting on microgreen production to achieve the highest quality crop possible in an energy efficient manner.

Read More
Lighting 2015 August Feature Image

August 14, 2015

Customizing Crop Foliage Color With LEDs: Ornamental Cr…

Do you find that your purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) crop is often green to light purple? What if we told you there is a quick solution to enhance and darken the foliage of purple fountain grass or other floriculture crops? In this second article of a four-part series highlighting the multiple uses of high-intensity light-emitting diodes (LEDs), we will discuss our research methodology and findings for enhancing the foliage color of ornamental crops with end-of-production (EOP) supplemental lighting (SL) in the greenhouse. Many ornamental crops that greenhouse and nursery growers produce vary in size, shape and color. These variables are often influenced by the growing environment. For example, leaf color (intensity, distribution or both) of ornamental crops such as purple fountain grass is a key component that often influences the consumer’s perception and ultimately an impulse purchase. The red or purple pigmentation of purple fountain grass leaves is […]

Read More
WaterPulse retail mats can help cut water use in retail settings

August 10, 2015

Technology Provides Solutions For Growing In Drought

In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown directed the State Water Resources Control Board to institute reductions in cities and towns across the state with the goal of reducing water usage by 25 percent. The announcement comes following the lowest snowpack ever recorded in the High Sierra. It was the first time in state history that action was taken to implement mandatory water restrictions. In May, the farmers in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta agreed to reduce their water use by 25 percent in exchange for assurance that they will not face further curtailment during the June to September growing season. Their proposal was approved by the State Water Resources Control Board. Growers who participate in the program could opt to either reduce water diversions under their riparian rights by 25 percent, or fallow 25 percent of their land. Given these conditions, growers and retailers are in need of methods and […]

Read More
Heating Roundup Feature Image

August 1, 2015

5 New Heating Options For The Greenhouse

Five heating systems manufacturers share their latest and greatest products. Tubing And Aluminum Heat Pipes (BioTherm) From Megatube and MicroClimate tubing to DuoFin and StarFin aluminum heat pipe, BioTherm is dedicated to providing heat solutions that can withstand the toughest greenhouse environments. The MegaTube and MicroClimate tubing options are easy to install and ideal for bench or floor heating. The tubing has a conductive heating surface that allows for maximum root-zone heating. The DuoFin and StarFin aluminum pipe options are great for perimeter heating and melting snow trapped in the greenhouse gutter. It can also be useful for bench heating. Both pipe options provide gentle, radiant heat for plants and don’t require welding. Infinite Energy 2 Condensing Boiler (Delta T Solutions) With up to 98 percent efficiency, the IE2 condensing boiler boasts a stainless steel heat exchanger with larger waterways to ensure maximum heat transfer. The product’s design ensures flexibility while […]

Read More
Heating Feature image

July 27, 2015

In Hot Pursuit Of Heating Trends For The Greenhouse

From biomass boilers to hydronic-heating systems, growers have a range of options to fit their operation’s unique needs. Here’s what five manufacturers had to say about the latest trends.

Read More
lighting feature

June 29, 2015

Customizing Crop Foliage Color With LEDs: Red Leaf Let…

In the first of a four-part series highlighting the multiple uses of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), researchers share how end-of-production supplemental lighting with LEDs enhances red leaf lettuce color prior to harvesting and shipping.

Read More

June 28, 2015

Keep Your Cool In The Greenhouse

Summer is in full swing, and that means growers need to worry about protecting plants and greenhouse employees from brutal temperatures. No sweat! These product manufacturers have offerings to help beat the heat.

Read More