Hands-Off Production

Hands-Off Production

Between lowering margins and reducing labor, automation in the greenhouse is more important now than ever. The less human intervention required to keep production flowing, the better. You could also argue, though, that when times are tough, making an investment in expensive equipment is tougher.

Larger operations, like those on our Top 100 Growers list, are a good place to look for the types of automation that provide the quickest return on investment and make the greenhouse flow more smoothly. 

Automation In The Green House

For Casa Verde Growers, the greenhouse growing operation of Petitti Garden Centers, finding labor hasn’t been too much of an issue. Casa Verde is enrolled in the H-2A program, providing labor. Most workers return year after year. Still, automation has been extensive and includes six transplant lines, each staffed with four to five people, including one person to lay down plants in the greenhouse. Newer greenhouses are equipped with boom and flood irrigation, as well as a hanging basket carousel system.

“There’s quite a bit we do here to minimize the labor as much as we can,” Casa Verde’s Wayne Cousins says.

New this year is a pot dispenser that handles the new Co-Ex pots, which takes one additional person to run, but still saves.

Can You Automate Everything?

 While there is a lot you can automate, there are some things that are just too expensive or meticulous.
For Casa Verde Growers, the problem isn’t automating processes, but having all those pieces of automation communicating with each other.
“For me, it’s more trying to get the systems to be able to talk to each other,” Wayne Cousins says. “We’ve got this beautiful carousel system. Man, it would be nice to set it up so that the different systems would talk to each other, or integrate them.” The option for this seems to be getting better, the same way it’s getting better for computers integrated among all pieces of equipment.
“In time, everything will be integrated.”
Equipment that pots and firms up plants off the potting machine is on the wish list of Rob Deleon of Deleon’s Bromeliads.
“I’m just waiting for the Dutch equipment manufacturers to perfect this piece of equipment before I purchase it,” he says.
Kube-Pak’s Bill Swanekamp says the one thing he hasn’t been able to automate is the physical sticking of the cuttings.
“I’ve heard of equipment that can do this, but it is very expensive and somewhat slow,” he says. 

“That makes a big difference right there,” Cousins says. “You add one more person to the line to run the machine, but it saves a lot of time.”

 Cousins explains that increased automation hasn’t necessarily reduced the amount of labor needed, but it’s allowed Casa Verde to use its labor in a smarter and more efficient way. Now spacing and pinching can be done at the right time, for example.

In the past, owner Angelo Petitti has allocated a certain amount of money toward improving the greenhouses, and Cousins says that at this point, the operation probably has all the automation it needs. Any changes being made are upgrades and repairs. So how does Casa Verde, No. 75 on the Top 100 Growers list, pick the right equipment and the right suppliers for upgrades?

“First we ask, ‘Does it work?’ Then you look at who’s selling it and their track record,” says Cousins. Technical service and support is the next thing Casa Verde requires.

The next automation Casa Verde is looking at is in pot labeling for bar coding individual pots, both to help keep tabs on what’s sold at retail and to fine tune sales.

Cousins says smaller operations should first focus on acquiring a flat and pot filler, if they don’t already have one, and then the focus should be on buying a cheap transplanter.

“You’ve got to put the whole system in place to make it work the most efficiently,” he says. “But that’s where they should think of first.” And as much of a sacrifice as it is, he says being patient in the first year of upgrading automation is critical.

“Even when we add new pieces of equipment, especially in the first year, sometimes it may seem it was just as fast to do it the old way, because usually there’s a learning curve,” he says. “It’s usually the second years before you see the benefit.”

Replacing Labor

Unlike Casa Verde, Kube-Pak has experienced the same problems that many greenhouses have with hiring good greenhouse workers.

“We have offered untrained employees the opportunity to learn how to be assistant growers, which include watering and spraying, and even at a starting wage of $13 per hour, I’ve had a hard time keeping them here,” says Kube-Pak’s Bill Swanekamp.

He says Kube-Pak has added a great deal of automation in the last five years, including a new 28,000-square-foot production area, a Butler building, and moved many production-type jobs to that new area. A new computerized soil mixing system runs four production lines simultaneously, can produce 40 cubic yards per hour and can make up to 99 different mixes. Swanekamp says Kube-Pak uses 20 different types of mixes, mostly based on different pH levels.

“By doing this, we can do all of our production, Monday to Friday, and eliminate most Saturday work, which we pay at time and a half, even though its not required by law,” he says. “This has saved us about $40,000 per year, just in overtime. Since the equipment upgrade costs about $125,000, we saw a payback in
three years.”

Another recent addition to automation is a rooted cutting production line, which Kube-Pak built itself. It cost about $6,000 to build, but Swanekamp says the savings are obvious–reducing costs from $2.50 per tray to about $1.25 per tray.

“It still takes the same number of people, but the work is done in about half the time and then they can be used for other jobs,” he adds. 

Looking Overseas For Answers

For the No. 28 grower on the Top 100 Growers list, Deleon’s Bromeliads, the cost of labor has been a challenge in these difficult economic times. Recent additions to the operation’s automation include a Dutch moveable table system in a 5.5-acre Dutch glasshouse. An automatic transport car moves plants on moveable tables, with the assistance of a vision grading system. Owner Rod Deleon says this system replaces 10 to 12 employees.

Overseas travel has helped Deleon decide what to automate and when. “I have attended the Horti Fair in the Netherlands numerous times,” he says. “By doing investigative research and engaging in conversation with different equipment manufacturers, I make economic decisions.” Making those decisions isn’t easy.

“It’s very difficult, but price, features, quality of the equipment and manufacturer reputation all enter into my decision,” Deleon says. The next piece of the puzzle for Deleon’s is robotic potting equipment, but not until the equipment has been perfected and tested.

For smaller-scale operations, Deleon recommends a trolley system to move plants more efficiently. Deleon has installed trolleys through 7 acres of greenhouse and says the system does the work of five to seven employees.

Whether replacing labor that’s too sparse or too expensive, even inexpensive automation like conveyors and drip tubes can help make production a more hands-off process.

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