When ArizonaEast was featured as the cover story of Greenhouse Grower’s January 2017 issue, the New Jersey-based succulent producer was just getting its second facility in Apopka, FL, up and running. At the time, Joe Vitale, one of the co-owners of ArizonaEast along with his brother, Brian, knew automation was going to be an important part of the design.
“We needed to get ahead of any of the issues that are associated with expanding before they arose,” says Vitale, an electrical engineer by trade.
Since that time, the changes that have taken place at the Apopka facility have been dramatic. In fact, when the facility first opened, the new location was only supposed to propagate and grow the material before sending it to New Jersey, where it would be shipped to customers.
“Now, we can fill and ship orders directly from the facility,” Vitale says.
To make this possible, the company focused on two things: the development of a remote monitoring system, and production automation software that would make order filling more efficient.
A Birds’ Eye View of Each Facility
To deal with the potential miscommunication that can come when running a facility that’s a thousand miles away, Vitale set up a property-wide Wi-Fi network covering 10 acres. Then he worked with his team to roll out a network of cameras.
“Everything we used to set up the cameras is available off the shelf commercially, but you have to know which pieces to put together to make it work across a large property,” Vitale says.
The two main cameras feature 20x optical zoom that can monitor the quality of each plant. Feeds from the cameras are accessible from both properties via an iPad.
To connect the cameras across one software system, ArizonaEast uses a package called Blue Iris, which was designed to be a surveillance system that can handle multiple camera feeds and operates on an iPad. It allows either of the Vitale brothers to zoom around the property.
For the underlying network, the company uses an enterprise-based Wi-Fi network called Unifi from the Ubiquiti company.
“The system is plug-and-play, and you can easily change out the components,” Vitale says. “It also isn’t so complex that it requires a dedicated IT person on your staff.”
Cameras are sometimes in such remote locations that they might have trouble connecting to the Wi-Fi network, so ArizonaEast uses a directional station that’s mounted on the cameras and helps extend the length of the feed by a few miles.
“My brother Brian uses these cameras daily to check on order status and plant quality,” Vitale says.
Even in cases when the camera feed might get obstructed, it’s easy to fix.
Order Tracking From Anywhere
ArizonaEast’s Florida facility also includes a new production automation software system that allows it to fill and ship orders. In the beginning, the company was faced with the challenge of filling complex orders that required plants to be pulled from multiple areas within the greenhouses. Coupled with this is that each order may have its own labeling requirements depending on where it is being shipped.
To solve this problem, Vitale developed an automated system in which incoming orders submitted through QuickBooks are then exported into the company’s internal software. The system then creates a progress bar for each order that changes color as filling of the order progresses.
“Anyone in the office can pull up all the orders being filled,” Vitale says.
At the same time, every tray of product gets a tracking label that is applied to the tray. As orders are entered, a dispatcher makes sure they go to the best person for that job, whether it’s someone who specializes in making gardens, assortments, etc. Each person responsible for making and filling the order has an iPad where the order pops up, so there’s no mistaking what it is. The order even includes a photo of the product that needs to be produced.
“We can track how much time it takes to produce every tray of product, and we can use that information to go back and do real-time cost calculations,” Vitale says. “There’s a lot of labor involved in the process, but the more you produce, the more accurate your labor costs become.
“We have a grading scale that can tell us which employees are the best at making certain products,” Vitale says. “This allows us to adapt their process to teach everyone else the most efficient way to make that product.”
To solve the UPC problem, ArizonaEast converted the conveyor room in its New Jersey facility into a UPC room. Product flows to the UPC room, and there’s a tracking label on everything that comes in.
“When it arrives in the room, the person working in the room scans the tray,” Vitale says. “If there’s 32 pieces in that case, 32 UPC labels come out with the exact information the customer requested go on that product.”
The software system also allows them to see if the UPCs have been printed. Once the product has a UPC applied, it goes to the shipping department, where the tray is scanned and the scanner prints out the label with the right information on it (similar to how airport car rental returns are processed).
Because the two sites are connected through the software system, the team can decide which facility the order should come from, and can then keep up with the order regardless of their location.
“When you combine the software system with the camera system, it’s as if you were there,” Vitale says.