Automation works best when a few specific criteria are met:
- Very repetitive tasks are being performed (e.g., transplanting).
- A production-line approach can be established whereby good materials flow in/out.
- Achievable product specifications can be established.
- There are limited input variables (e.g., standard pot sizes are used).
And for small businesses? Well, it depends on what you mean by automation, I guess. If you mean purchasing, say, a large transplanter or vegetable packing machine, then the business obviously has to have sufficient throughput to make it pay.
But smaller operations can make use of simple ergonomic practices to significantly increase their work rates. For example, practical studies in the U.K. found that potting rates on some lines were about 178 three-litre nursery pots per operator-hour when using machine potting, but could be as high as 150 pots when done in well-organized hand-potting systems.
One secret to helping this work is to do simple “process mapping.” In other words, identify all the tasks that go into making up the process as a whole. Every time a product or component is touched, the task is noted. This helps identify all the steps required, and these may be many more than you think. One case in the U.K. a few years ago noted 117 separate elements to the production of hebe plants. In this list of tasks, only those that actually add value to the product should be retained; otherwise, you are performing non-essential jobs. It’s even better if these tasks do double (or treble!) duty by doing several things at once (e.g., watering, pest scouting, growth evaluation, product availability estimating, etc.).
What about the people? Some argue that freeing humans from mindlessly repetitive tasks is quite literally liberating. Providing workers with more interesting work (such as maintaining the equipment!) should provide a more rewarding workplace environment. Also, removing people from repetitive tasks makes good ergonomic sense, since it reduces repetitive stress injury on the body.
However, others fear that mechanization, by definition, reduces labour input and therefore jobs. This reduces opportunity for less skilled workers to make a living. Only you can decide which is best for your situation, and that’s probably influenced by whether you are a business owner/manager or production employee.
Can we have people-powered ‘automation?’ A number of growers are moving toward implementing “just-in-time manufacturing” (JIT) principles. The idea is that manufacturing wastes can be reduced by only producing the right amount and combination of parts at the right place and at the right time. Waste adds to costs without increasing product value. This may work very well for cars at Toyota (where it was originally developed), but it may be more difficult with living, changing products such as those growers deal with each day.
Morphing from this is KanBan (“kan” means “visual,” “ban” means “card,” so “KanBan” means “visual cards”). These visual cards are simple cue cards to initiate the manufacture or dispatch of a specific input material (e.g., nuts and bolts, pots, labels, etc.). Therefore, since production depends on customer demand, it is highly responsive to customer needs.
The latest version is Lean Flow manufacturing (often referred to as “lean”). This sees all input inventory (including labour) that is not directly going to a product as waste, and therefore puts it up for elimination. As a concept, it is making significant cost cuts in a number of greenhouse businesses, and if you want to know more, ask your local lean manufacturing consultant to drop by.