Superior Automation Means Premium Plugs For Dümmen

Dümmen has cataloged how much glue to add to plugs depending on the crop, weather, time of year and other variables.

Breeders develop the genetics and young plant growers produce them for regional customers. That’s typically the supply chain model employed here in the U.S., and it’s largely how breeders and young plant growers across Europe operate.

One breeder who operates this way in the U.S. is Dümmen, which has formed a network of seven rooting stations that stretches from as far east as Plainview Growers in New Jersey to as far west as Plug Connection in California. But Dümmen’s European business based in Rheinberg, Germany, follows a different model. Dümmen not only breeds its own genetics in Rheinberg, but it grows virtually all of its own young plants to ship worldwide there.

Dümmen, in fact, is able to reach 36 countries worldwide because of several automated systems it has introduced in recent years at Rheinberg. And, like U.S. growers continuously striving to establish stronger plugs, quicker bench turns and more efficient shipping, Dümmen has also sought to improve its own production efficiencies in Europe.

“Automation, when done correctly, is a cost savings,” says Perry Wismans, general manager of Dümmen USA. “More importantly, though, it allows us to standardize the process, have fewer quality issues and serve the customer better. Everyone receives standardized products across the board.”

Stronger Plugs Desired

Dümmen, as it does for the U.S., breeds a variety of items for the European market, but geraniums, poinsettias and petunias make up approximately 75 percent of all cuttings produced at Rheinberg.

After cuttings are cooled for a period following their arrival from Dümmen’s farms in El Salvador, Ethiopia and Israel, they’re stuck into a specially designed media and incorporated into a customized tray system. Dümmen partnered on the media development with Omni Solutions, which offers Aero NT media that includes a glue-like additive in plugs.

Dümmen isn’t the only producer using a glue plug worldwide, but Brian Wismans, operations manager at Rheinberg, says the company has cataloged precisely how much glue to add to plugs depending on the crop, weather, time of year and other variables.

“Knowing how much glue to add is absolutely crucial for us,” Brian says. “About three years ago we really improved our rooting plug by analyzing the whole process from the start. We found out how to improve the rooting speed by adjusting the rooting plug.”

In winter, for example, drier plugs are desired. So Dümmen will customize a plug to retain more water in the early stages, and it will adjust the watering schedule accordingly to have a drier plug later in production.

“We’ve been able to decrease one week of rooting time for many crops, including geraniums,” Brian says. “Due to this development, we did not have to expand our facility in Rheinberg, and that saved us some major investing.”

Even before plugs are moved into the greenhouse, a customized tray is utilized to improve water management and air volume for roots, as well as provide optimum space and protection for root balls during transport. The system is called Targa, but because Targa trays are difficult to stack once they’re filled, strips are first manually placed into Styrofoam trays, which are then filled before being moved into Targa trays. Styrofoam trays are emptied, and Targa trays are stacked onto a conveyor that moves them toward a sticking line.

“The Targa method is a patented method for the Rheinberg facility,” Brian says. “It actually encompasses the whole process of the Targa tray itself, including the two machines that pick up the strips from the other machine and put them into the Targa tray.”

Production, Shipping Optimized

In the greenhouse, Dümmen optimizes the production environment with artificial lighting and heat that’s radiated from above.

“We have invested in a lot of artificial light so that when a young plant makes the transition from one of our offshore farms, where a lot of high light is always given, it transitions easily and is less stressed,” Brian says.
Another important element is heating from above. “We try to keep the
environment as natural as possible,” he says. “Plants get heat and light from the top, so we create both. Most U.S. facilities heat from below. With heat that radiates from above, the foliage stays more compact.”

The facility’s general design is also a fundamental component to its ability to ship most efficiently. Items are conveyed chronologically throughout the greenhouse so when they need to be shipped, they’re easily accessible and employees don’t need to hunt for single trays.

Brian says the facility’s design follows the “time-zone principal,” which is
essential for Rheinberg.

“In this model, certain varieties are sorted into the different time zones in the greenhouse,” he says. “Every day has three time zones, and there are 21 in a week. We pack customers far away from our facility first in the delivery week. Customers who have a relatively small distance to our facility and customers who explicitly wish for it are packed latest in the week.”

Astoundingly, Dümmen relies on only four employees to load carts after items have been sorted on a conveyor belt. The company used to rely on more than 30 employees to load, Perry says. Employing the time-zone principal is part of the reason why only four employees are needed, but computerized packing and a cart-assembling machine are the keys to how Dümmen can operate with so few.

Computerized packing was implemented for two reasons, Perry says: an increase in business volume and space limitations.

“With the old system, we had packed by variety and then again on the cart allocated for individual customers. We needed almost two times the number of carts, and we were limited on space,” Perry says.

The new system moves an order directly to the appropriate cart, meaning fewer carts in the shipping area. The area has 80 offload positions for items. Once an item is set onto a conveyor belt, a computer scans the tray’s bar code and recognizes exactly to which of the 80 offload positions it must go. The system goes as far as telling the employee offloading the tray on which shelf a tray should be placed.

Dümmen solved its space issues further with a cart-assembling machine that builds custom carts on site the day of a shipment. The machine spaces shelves based on the order to come, so an ideal amount of space is created between shelves for the particular item being shipped.

“The computerized packing operation appears to be almost flawless,” says Doug Cole, president of D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, N.H., who visited Dümmen’s Rheinberg facility with about 30 other U.S. growers during a trip to IPM Essen in January 2012. “The trays are bar-coded so that the machinery drops each tray at a station where an employee then sorts the tray onto the appropriate cart with ease.”

Standardization For Quality Control

One takeaway Cole took home after visiting Rheinberg and seeing the systems Dümmen has in place is that exceptions can get a grower into trouble.

“We are all about customer service, but when a system is put in place, do your best to go with the system as much as possible,” he says. “Making too many exceptions in your ordering, production or shipping process can lead to confusion, which can do more harm than good for the customer.”
Ensuring systems are followed across the supply chain, including at rooting stations, is also key to maintaining standardizations, Perry says. Because Dümmen breeds and, in Rheinberg’s case, produces virtually all of its own young plants, it can easily answer questions about stock plants and their performance for Dümmen growers around the world.

“We receive weekly reports from all of our farms around the world about what is good and what needs to be improved,” Perry says. “We don’t have to wait for our customers to contact us about a concern, as we are growing the same stock they are. We are constantly in front of the quality control.
“If we do receive a call, we are able to go into our own greenhouse and directly to the same variety to see if we are experiencing the same thing. It’s very reassuring for our partners.”

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