As the cost of production continues to rise, growers are always looking for ways to smartly right-size their workforce, where it makes sense.
“We view labor costs being a huge factor in the future for us being able to continue growing annuals and just plants in general,” Rockwell Farms general manager Bryan Abramowski says. “Conveyors allow us to limit some of the seasonal workers that we have to hire in the spring, but it’s also enabled us to take out some of the hard, back breaking work that we once used to have.”
Edwin Dijkshoorn is WPS’ (De Lier, the Netherlands) director of business development, North America. Dijkshoorn was involved in the project to install his firm’s SmartFlo system in Abramowski’s greenhouses.
He says that the production team at Rockwell realized conveyors could help them be more efficient on the finished potting line (12-inch pots). His most experienced worker team topped out at 24-28 pots per minute. With the help of plant movers, that same crew can now pot up 50 pots per minute.
“Not only that, but he says they are able to do this with two to three less workers [than before],” Dijkshoorn adds. “His potting machines are at maximum capacity, but he feels he could probably do two to three pots more per minute without maxing out the conveyor system.”
Retrofit vs. build new
Another useful aspect of conveyor systems in horticulture is that, in most cases, they can be installed in just about any relatively modern greenhouse structure with minimal modifications to the production cycle or the growing structure itself.
“Usually, it is easy to retrofit in existing greenhouses. Mind you, if they are older than 40 years, then I think we will have more obstacles,” Dijkshoorn says. “Electricity is usually the major modification [needed] because you need at least 208V 3 phase power.”
Hanging basket help
Lately, Dijkshoorn is receiving inquiries from hanging basket growers that are already using Cherry Creek’s ECHO boom irrigation system. Most are looking for a quick install of loading and off-loading belts so that employees can move baskets onto the ECHO system faster.
“I actually have two quotes pending for this [right now],” Dijkshoorn says. “Since the ECHOs are between 8 to 10 feet high, we will install a belt that runs at a correct level on the head end of these ECHOs. The hanging baskets are fed onto a SmartFlo belt at three feet high, and this belt will incline to the right height for the ECHO’s and one person on a working platform can hang the baskets onto the hooks of the ECHO system.”
What’s next with conveyors
While he cannot speak for other manufacturers, Dijkshoorn can share what WPS is working on for future automated plant moving systems. It’s a segment of horticulture equipment that will continue to grow as wages go up and a new generation of workers shies away from roles in tough working conditions.
“We are already implementing robotic arms, AI vision techniques for sorting, wireless counting devices to monitor your productivity, buffering the plants for easy processing of plant orders, ergonomic workstations if plants need to be processed with add-ons, and pot stickering machines,” he says, “and we will introduce a spray boom which can ride over the belts [in the future].”