When planning out ways to make your operation more efficient, it all starts with the layout of your greenhouse. If you are building a new operation, you have a great chance to get it right. If you are working with an existing facility, you inherit the inefficiencies created by the previous design, but now may be the time to make some significant changes. Production and labor efficiency is a direct correlation to the layout and flow. To maximize this, you need a plan.
Flow Drives All Operations
You want to have direct paths and clear direction when considering flow. For some operations, this means that inputs (soil, pots, plugs, etc.) all enter at one end of the growing facility and move toward the other end as a finished product at the shipping area. For other operations, it makes a lot of sense to have production and shipping located in a central area of the operation with clearly defined areas for each function. One of the biggest mistakes growers make is they have production crossing paths with shipping or vice versa. This hinders the best-laid plans and leads to confusion and congestion when both departments are busy.
Production areas operate best when the flow of assembly moves in a pass-through pattern where the components are delivered to the back of the production lines from the rear and move forward. Plants leave the end of the line potted and ready to go to the growing area. A real time killer and logjam creator is when supplies have to pass by the production line to get to the back of the line. This stops production and is a significant safety concern.
Think of your production area as a pull-through parking spot; everyone loves them because they are efficient and safer. To take it one step further, try to have your plugs always delivered to one side of the line and finished products leave on the other side. Clearly define flow paths.
Space Is Not Overrated
Most growers want to maximize their growing space and give very little thought to production space; this kills your efficiency. It is common to see production areas where workers barely have enough room to get a pallet of pots to the back of the potting machine. And when working on the line, they are rubbing shoulders with their fellow workers. This is not comfortable and slows down production. The longer a production line is, the more comfortable it is to work on it. Workers will not feel they have to rush to keep up with the line even though the line is running the same speed or faster. Add an extended take-off area for loading carts or wagons and that person can load multiple carts at a time rather than having to keep moving carts one at a time.
Automation Increases Your Efficiency
Once you have a good flow plan, automation allows you to increase production with the same or less labor. As labor supply and costs put a drain on your profits, the return on investment of automation is more attractive than ever. Pot dispensers can be added to most lines; transplanters have come a long way and can plant into a wide range of containers with simple programming and set a constant pace; maybe cart loaders could be a possibility. Material handling should be at the top of your list; using forks for moving product around and spacing is very efficient. As robots evolve, plan to see more of them in your efficient operation.
Think About the Future
While developing your plan, it is hard to predict the future, but ask some simple questions: Do you plan to expand or contract? Will your product offering change soon? What machines do you plan to add today, tomorrow, one to five year(s) from now? It is easy to plan so you have flexibility for the future. Bring a company in that focuses on production equipment and efficiency; they will help you through this process.
The most significant area an operation can gain efficiency in is their people. Openly discuss efficiency with your staff and the benefits it has for them and the company. Then listen to their ideas; you may be surprised. If you have the support of your staff when trying to make improvements, the rest is easy.