Lack of Labor Drives Need for Automation Among Top 100 Growers

Bench-of-PlantsThe results of Greenhouse Grower’s 2018 Top 100 Grower survey indicate that many of the top growers are investing in technology and automation wherever they can to counter significant labor shortages (83%) and costs (73%).

About 72% are making the investment to improve efficiency, and 58% are doing it for better uniformity and efficacy of production. Nearly half are funding this area of their businesses to allow employees to concentrate on other areas. About a third are spending money to expand their growing operations.


Show Me the Money

What types of technology and automation do they plan to invest in? The short answer is anything that will increase efficiencies.

Fifty-nine percent of growers said they plan to invest in production automation. Computer software came in as the second largest area of investment with 47% of growers purchasing ERP and other software systems, and greenhouse structures and coverings was the third largest area, with 42% of growers building on or replacing structures. Irrigation controls was a close fourth area with 41% of growers focusing on watering efficiency, and LED lighting and growing media equipment landed among the top, both with 34% of growers saying they would be investing in these areas.

Only 16% of survey respondents said robotics is an area where they plan to invest, and technology in general (drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, computer hardware, and handheld technology) was under 19%. About 23% said they plan to invest in functional automation, which includes spacing robots, foggers, and environmental controls.

Equipment Most in Demand

In the area of production automation, Top 100 Growers plan to purchase an array of equipment including material handling, planting equipment, irrigation booms, lights, flood floors, robots, and other advanced technologies. Transplanters and sticking machines, however, were most frequently mentioned.

With the goal of helping to improve processes, Matthew Altman of Altman Plants said the plan is to invest in transplanting, soil delivery, material handling, and other equipment.

At Metrolina Greenhouses, Abe VanWingerden said the operation’s continued investment in automation isn’t restricted or targeted to one year.

“We spend 5% of sales on capital improvements each year (expansion, automation, technology) and that trend will continue in the future,” VanWingerden said. “[We will be looking to invest in] transplanters, automatic stickers, robots, soil mixing technology, etc.”

Computer Upgrade

Upgrading the main computer is on the agenda for this year for one Top 100 Grower.

“We use an IBM iSeries, and it is eight years old,” said Bill Swanekamp of Kube-Pak. “We need to replace it with a newer model. We are also writing many new software programs to improve the efficiency of our operation.”

Jonathan Cude at Sedan Floral also plans to make improvements to the operation’s computer controls, and take some matters into his own hands.

“We are working on creating controllers for our greenhouse using programmable logic controllers,” Cude said. “I haven’t been satisfied with what is available, or its cost, so I have been working to make our own solutions to greenhouse environmental controls.”

With the end goal of feeding the bottom line, Top 100 Growers will continue to seek solutions to increase efficiencies, and implementing the latest technology will be key.

Responding to the question, “Are you investing in automation equipment this year?,” Mara Bergen of Bergen’s Greenhouses, Inc., succinctly said, “We do every year!”