The term “big data” was coined several years ago to describe voluminous data from various sources that floods a business. In a world of ever-increasing technology, the amount of data tracked by commercial greenhouse growers has exploded over the past decade.
Most of a grower’s collection of big data centers around material requirements planning (MRP). From forecasting and replenishment through to producing sales orders and work orders, growers produce far more data than traditional manufacturers due to dealing with a live product.
“You can call it whatever you want, in the end, you’ve got to act upon it,” says Greg Lafferty, Senior Account Executive for Practical Software Solutions.
Here are three ways growers are using technology to help act upon the big data they collect:
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) to Transmit Business Information
Greenhouse growers must have the capacity to send and receive thousands of purchase order and invoices from their customers. According to Eric Fountain, a developer with Practical Software Solutions, growers on average can send 300 to 1,200 sales orders to retailers per day, depending on the size of their operation.
Before the digital age, this process involved the buyer generating a purchase order, printing the order and either faxing or mailing the document. Then the supplier would input the information into their business system and print out an invoice. The invoice would be faxed or e-mailed back to the buyer, who would then input the information back into their system for processing.
Not only was this process time-consuming, but also it allowed the potential for entering errors into the system every time a person would hand-key data into their system. The U.S. Department of Transportation developed EDI in the 1960s to eliminate paperwork and send the data between one business’ computer system and another, according to EDI provider TrueCommerce. The automotive and grocery industries were early adopters of EDI.
Haitham Ghadiry, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for TrueCommerce, says EDI is key to having strong relationships with national retailers like Lowe’s Home Improvement and The Home Depot. In some cases, he says, it’s the only way greenhouses can participate in the big-box market.
“Retailers like Walmart won’t even talk to greenhouse vendors that don’t have (EDI),” Ghadiry says. “That’s understandable, as Walmart has thousands of suppliers. The only way a retailer can effectively manage thousands of suppliers is through an EDI supplier portal that streamlines everything.”
Forecasting and Replenishment for Actionable Insights
Forecasting and replenishment creates some of the greatest volumes of data for greenhouse growers — and some of the largest headaches. Because of the sheer number of variables that can affect the who, what, when, where, and why people buy plants, it’s nearly impossible to track this data without help from technology.
In 2005, Robin Cross, then CFO of Kraemer’s Nursery in Mount Angel, OR, wanted to create a forecasting model to meet the seasonal demand of the horticulture industry. Cross was also an economics professor in the Agricultural Resource Economics Department at Oregon State University at one time, so he enlisted the help of his former student, John Garren, to help build the program.
“As we worked on the project, we began to realize as retailers were making daily Point of Sale data available to the vendors, most of the vendors were not equipped to handle the data and use it to make decisions,” says Garren, who is now CEO of DemandLink. “We decided at that time to make a service that was commercially available so all the vendors could benefit from the technology and not just the vendor we were working for.”
The system Garren and Cross developed tracks more than 50,000 points of data — from daily store level sales to NOAA weather stations to housing starts to unemployment statistics — to help growers more accurately forecast their production schedules and replenishment.
“It’s about packaging it all up and looking at actional insights for the growers,” Garren says.
Business Intelligence (BI) to Make Smarter Decisions
Seeking actionable insights doesn’t end with forecasting and replenishment. For big data to be more than an eye-squinting amount of numbers on a spreadsheet, Business Intelligence tools help big data to be displayed in a more actionable set of insights.
According to CIO magazine, BI tools access and analyze data sets and present findings in dashboards, graphs, charts, reports, summaries, and maps to provide users with detailed intelligence about the state of a business.
BI tools come in a variety of formats. Some companies have the IT staff to create their own BI analytics. Others rely on third-party BI tools, which come with a wide range of functions and usability. Some programs offer drag-and-drop report building options, while other programs provide an expansive toolset that allows beginners and seasoned BI professionals to complete their reports.
Others choose to take a hybrid approach. John Tucker, the Senior Solutions Architect at Metrolina Greenhouses, says while they’ve built a BI platform on OpenText Magellan and created a homebrew system with their specific methodologies, calculations, and analysis types they use, they’ve also created their own data warehouse design, which Tucker says is the backbone of any BI initiative.
“In effect, our setup is not much different than if we’d chosen another vendor solution, like Microsoft Power BI or Tableau,” Tucker says. “Someone internally still has to do the work of turning the data into something meaningful using these tools. For us, because of the data analytics talent and experience we have on staff, we’ve been successful taking a hybrid approach. We built a BI system using off-the-shelf software as a starting point, then via report logic and data warehouse design, and presentation layer programming, we’ve tailored the results to our industry and our organization.”