By Gary Jones
By Gary Jones
It’s always fascinating to see advances in automation and the inventiveness with which growers and machinery suppliers can increase production while minimizing inputs. Obvious benefits of mechanization include increased output per person, better product uniformity and (in the absence of breakdowns or the need for adjustments) more consistent workflow and less downtime. Choosing to automate might simply be deciding if the job is so labour intensive that it simply won’t get done at all without automation.
It’s always fascinating to see advances in automation and the
inventiveness with which growers and machinery suppliers can increase
production while minimizing inputs. Obvious benefits of mechanization
include increased output per person, better product uniformity and (in
the absence of breakdowns or the need for adjustments) more consistent
workflow and less downtime. Choosing to automate might simply be
deciding if the job is so labour intensive that it simply won’t get
done at all without automation.
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).
Of course, other factors can improve any specific situation, such as
having a good crew supervisor, supplies available when needed and a
team who communicate well.
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
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
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.
Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at Gary.Jones@Kwantlen.ca.