Automation is a buzzword in the greenhouse industry, with many growers trying to determine how it fits into their business. It’s also a rapidly changing segment of the industry as new technology is regularly being introduced. Below, Bouldin & Lawson President Paul Whiting offers his automation insights.
Greenhouse Management: What are some of the newest developments in greenhouse automation equipment?
Paul Whiting: Mainstay automation for production has been with us for a long while but technology continues to improve. We can now more accurately monitor amendment additions in soil mixing. Tray and pot fillers are not only faster, but quicker to changeover and fill more uniformly. Transplanters have become so much more adaptable for larger plugs (now common) and larger containers, planters and baskets. Some of the newer automation is developing around the labor-intensive pot and tray separation and auto-pot loading either singly or into shuttle trays prior to filling. Not only is this job intense at peak production times, but a lot of labor is tied up maintaining flow that could be better utilized.
GM: What are some of the key developments in automation technology you've seen in the last year?
PW: All greenhouses can benefit from some level of automation. Small to moderate operations can improve pot/tray filling by both quality and speed or convey product in/out of greenhouses to save time. Larger greenhouse can now benefit from fully automated production lines from soil mixing/delivery to high production filling and planting. Clearly all equipment has improved in flexibility with the ability to handle a wider range of container sizes, plant type/size and soil types, and this helps growers better utilize and justify automation.
GM: How can a grower determine what kind of automation equipment is right for their greenhouses?
PW: Call us. We have a very experienced staff on hand who can visit and give you feedback on your priorities to help as you consider cost savings along with purchase expense. The important thing is to purchase the right piece of equipment. Too small a capacity — you may fail to meet your needs or not allow for future growth. Too large may take more space than necessary or may not yield ROI. The choices are many; the selection should be few.
GM: What are some of the less-discussed benefits of utilizing automation?
PW: One of the hidden features is data collection. Most machines now have PLCs controlling all or part of their operation. Apart from the obvious benefit of it controlling a function, it can collect the same data about that function. This information can be sent directly to a smartphone or tablet for real-time review. Most systems are now fully integrated and monitor raw materials, batches mixed and compare them to number of pots/trays planted per hour/day/week and can give continual feedback on multiple production lines all day and can be stored for review post season.
GM: What sets Bouldin & Lawson’s products apart from other automation equipment?
PW: We have been in the industry since 1959 and have experienced so much with all the changes taking place with U.S. growers over that time. We produce everything at our factory to not only ensure the quality and fit and finish demanded by our customers, but also to give responsive customer service support when it’s needed.