From the Editor: February 2019
Eyeing automation abroad
Hello from Germany. Thanks to the generous support from Sunrise Greenhouses and Pöppelmann, I had the opportunity to tour German greenhouses with growers from the United States. It’s been a fantastic experience and, unsurprisingly, technology stole the show at each stop.
Our first stop was Emsflower, a massive greenhouse-garden centre complex complete with an elegant café, a butterfly garden and a mini-zoo. Once we peeled ourselves away from the meercats, we saw the beginnings of a hydroponic lettuce trial. Roots were threaded through a thin papery pot and placed on floating rafts, while LEDs bathed the plants in a purple light. 88 hectares of greenhouse space and seven more– to a maximum of 18 – devoted to greenhouse tomato production. The vast majority was ornamental.
The back of the greenhouse was where the technological action took place. Greeted by self-driven, computer-programmed transport carts delivering pots from the loading docks to automated pot spacers, we arrived at seven sticking machines. Each performed at an average rate of 2,000 cuttings per hour – you do the math. Watching the computer screen, the program was able to recognize which end was the stem, and which end wasn’t – not always easy with the Argyranthemum frutescens at the time, hence the two staff stationed at the end of the sticking line, double checking the machines’ work. It was a sight to behold.
Next, we stopped at Marc Peters’ where we saw our first spacing fork of the tour. After the potted topiaries were arranged with an automated spacer, the forklift driver would pick them up, then deliver them to their destination on the greenhouse floor while maintaining the same spacing formation with ease. The chains seemed to drive the pots forward during release – just imagine the amount of labour saved with this one piece of equipment. Altogether, the forklift system, the spacer and the accompanying computer system costed 60,000 Euros – roughly $90,800 CAD at today’s exchange rate. But each one has also lasted him 15 years so far.
At Gartenbau Bosch, the grower showed us his ebb-and-flow system on concrete floors. The impressive part was how quickly he could demonstrate this for us. A few seconds on his mobile phone and the floor started to flood from several openings. The area was filled within seconds. Compared to watering from the top, watering by capillary action reduces the chances of disease, negating the need to sanitize the water regularly.
One of our last stops was Bremkens Orchids where they’ve designed a completely new automation system for the young orchid stage. After staff evaluated plants for disease, 16 photos were taken of each plant by multiple cameras and automatically sorted by size. A second camera station then turned the plant to the correct angle before moving the sorted plants into trays. .
Though each operation was able to reduce their labour use, there was one commonality between them – automation was not 100 per cent perfect. Whether it was double checking the machine’s work or picking up a potted plant that had slipped from the forklift, good human help is still needed – and everywhere you go, hard to find.