Automation Turns to Data at Four Star Greenhouses

Automation saves greenhouse growers time and money, and comes in handy when labor is so difficult to find. But what if it could do more? A collaborative project between Four Star Greenhouses, Innovative Software Solutions (ISS), and the ISO Group proves it can — with a little help.

With more than 20 acres of indoor growing area and 4 additional acres of outdoor growing space at its Carleton, MI, headquarters, and with three additional offsite growers added for expanded production of annuals, perennials, and shrubs, Four Star Greenhouses sticks around 340,000 trays of cuttings per year, and its offsite growers stick 260,000. The operation purchased two ISO Model 2500 automated sticking machines to help free up employees for other production tasks.

While the machines freed up labor, the work that came afterward of entering detailed inventory tracking data manually into a computer, and scanning and labeling trays was still time-consuming and labor intensive. So Four Star asked ISS, the creators of Picas (plant inventory control and accounting software) software to come up with a solution.

Collaborative Problem Solving Crosses Industry Barriers

ISS specializes in customer-driven software that covers every aspect of greenhouse operations, from planning and production to shipping and tracking. Four Star Greenhouses uses Picas systems from seed to sale, for everything from accounting to production and shipping. The software allows Four Star to track labor costs and units per hour, and offer bonus incentives to increase employee productivity.

ISS worked closely with the ISO Group, a company that creates automation equipment for labor-intensive tasks, to create an interface to integrate the sticking machines with the rest of Four Star’s software systems. The interface lets Four Star track items such as machine output, number of trays, percent of good cuttings, labor, and downtime, and it connects the ISO machines to an automatic labeling machine. The tracking system can also compare different varieties against each other. This provides invaluable data that helps Four Star know which varieties the machine does best and which ones it might be better to stick manually.

Representatives from ISO and Picas were on-site for the installation, which made it easier to tweak the system and adjust the machines.

Reaping the Benefits of Enhanced Automation

Jeff Back, Director of Greenhouse Operations at Four Star Greenhouses, says the operation has its first year of data at this point. Last season, 10% of on-site production was done on the ISO machines, and during peak season it ran them for three shifts, 24 hours a day. During the year, the ISO machines processed around 34,000 trays.
“We are purchasing another machine in a few weeks and hope that it will take us to 15% to 20% of production,” Back says. “If we can get to the point where one out of every five trays we stick is done on the ISO machines, we will be in a really good spot.”

Thanks to the software interface, Back knows exactly what it costs him to have people working the machine because of the software that tracks machine hours, as well as human hours. Back can determine what the human cost is against every tray produced because the software allows him to create a cost per unit per employee, so he knows what it costs to have people work the machine versus sticking by hand. This knowledge helps him prove return on investment.

Back says the software integration has helped take the minutia out of sticking cuttings because it helps him quickly gather data from his machines and not get bogged down in time-consuming details. That’s on top of the other benefits that the combination of using the software with the robots provides, such as allowing Four Star to reduce its labor for sticking cuttings, label trays quickly, and effectively update its back end systems.

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