Greenhouse Automation: Rise Of The Machines

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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.”

Richard Jones is the group editor for Greenhouse Grower and Today's Garden Center magazines.

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