With the diminishing labor pool and rising minimum wage in the U.S., automation has become more of a requirement than an option. This was demonstrated in the Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 State of the Industry, which reported that for 2017 “grower investment in technology is imminent.” Specifically, growers said they are investing in mechanization to improve efficiency, expand their growing operations and to allow employees to concentrate on other areas (68%, 32%, and 30% respectively.) To reach these goals 46% of greenhouse growers say they are planning to buy equipment in 2017: 50% structures and coverings, 30% irrigation equipment, 26% computer technology, and 16% planting equipment. In my mind, this suggests that greenhouse growers and investors are ready to capitalize on the benefits of automation.
The sprayer machine can automatically spray 57-meter benches and move from one bed to the next. In their experience, the machine can spray nearly an acre and hour fully automated. Also, the machine provides a consistently even and thorough spray which allows for them to spray less often, boasting huge savings in time and money. Next on their list for 2017, is a FlowMaster packing machine from Havatec BV which will cut labor their costs for the packing area.
The planting machine can sort plants by size while rotating the pots so that all of the leaves face the same direction. In their experience it can plant up to 1,400 plants per hour. The spacing machine sorts the pots by size and then places the pots on a table to be delivered by an automated crane to the greenhouse. This automation maximizes their growing space as minimal access is needed in the greenhouse. Also, the needed tasks require less people, which allows for them to focus resources on employing highly trained employees that positively impact the quality of their product.
Harvesting is another area benefiting from automation. To date, the HV-100 robot has moved tens of millions of pots at more than 40 facilities in the U.S. The robots free up scarce and expensive human labor for higher-value tasks.
The HV-100 robot navigates with a distance-measuring laser called Lidar and infrared sensors that can read a reflective reference tape. The Lidar allows the robot to see pots and obstacles precisely measuring the distance to these objects. The system is accurate to better than an inch and is key to finding, picking up, and placing pots in the correct position on the bed. The robot surveys the pots already on the ground making small adjustments to the position of each plant it puts down. The Lidar also aids in detecting and avoiding hazards like sprinkler risers, people, and other robots.
A reflective tape is rolled out on the side of the bed or work area as a boundary for the robots to use as a reference. The operator points the robot at the source pots to be picked and then presses the start button. Once started, the robot uses the on-board infrared sensors to find the boundary tape, turns so it is parallel to the tape, and follows the tape to the spacing area. These smart, practical, and sustainable machines repeat this cycle over and over again until the job is done.
Greenhouse automation has seen some interesting advancements since my last short automation post. Not to mention, the agriculture industry has also experienced some disruptive technology; some of which I predict will find its way into greenhouses this coming year:
Check out the Blue River Technology LettuceBot with See & Spray technology.
“The LettuceBot is the first precision smart implement that identifies every plant, makes a decision based on what it sees, and precisely sprays individual plants. LettuceBot automatically thins lettuce fields with a precision that increases yields and gives farmers a valuable alternative to scarce farm labor. Also, the See & Spray technology identifies and then sprays the precise area infected by weeds annually saving the industry billions of dollars in chemicals (see video above.)
The LettuceBot then keeps the best plants using criteria based on optimal spacing and the most uniform size of the plants available. On board technology including cameras, 20 top-of-the-line processors, computer vision algorithms and ¼-inch-precise sprayers allow more than 5,000 decisions per minute. LettuceBot represents a major step toward smart implements that have the ability to see and spray plants individually at field scale. This see and spray capability is a major step toward reduced chemical use and increased sustainability.” – BlueRiverT.Com
There is always the possibility that automation could create some issues related to maintenance and software updates, however, I know that one thing is certain: technology is disrupting the industry, and the opportunity to gain from this change is present. In my opinion, now may be the time to evaluate how your company is going compete in the next five to ten years. If your competition is increasing their profits, quality and consistency through automation, will you be able to sustain your profits?
Do you have any experience with this topic? What’s your opinions on greenhouse automation? Do you have any recommendations? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.