For those nurseries still to venture into the world of automation, now is the time to make that move. There are big opportunities to save on labour costs and eliminate much of the drudgery that workers seem reluctant to take up these days. And those nurseries already using automation need to keep an eye on the developments and new technology. Upgrading may make economic sense.
Bedding producers increasingly use seeding and transplanting machines. The main considerations are the volume of production and timing to ensure that production peaks are catered for.
As well as coping with volumes, seeding machines must also be accurate and sufficiently flexible to handle different seeds, sowing rates and tray formats. Similar factors apply to transplanters, but remember that plugs have an optimum size for transplanting. A delay in the process will affect quality so make sure any new equipment has the capacity to cope with the busiest periods.
Transplanting is a shock to a young plug and the last thing it needs is rough handling. It is important to see a demonstration of equipment so you can assess its smoothness. You should also assess the ease of changing from one format to another to cater for different tray sizes.
In the past decade the automation behind transplanters has leapt forward. Last year Rotomation introduced the first of a new generation of transplanter — the wireless transplanter from Urbinati — and 10 units have already been installed at UK nurseries.
It is the first transplanter on the market with singularly motorised fingers without cables. Rotomation director Phillip Ashton says it is “very flexible and can plant from and into any tray type”.
One of its key features is that there need be no link between the number of heads used in the plug tray and the destination tray. Ashton explains: “Eight heads can take plants from a 128-plug tray, with eight or 16 cells in a row, and plant them into 10x15cm-pot trays where there are five pots in the row.
“This is achieved in one movement because the heads take eight plants, deposit five into the first tray and three into the second tray. On the next movement, eight plants are taken again and then two plants go into the first tray and five into the second, the remaining plant starting the third tray.”
The machine’s other benefits include interchangeable fingers for optimum handling of large basket-plants and the ability to plant into pots straight from a potting machine. It is said that planting speeds of up to 1,200 plants per head per hour can be achieved. Extra heads can be added at any stage.
Benefits for staff
Potting machines have become a common sight on hardy ornamental nurseries. They reduce the time needed for potting schedules so staff can get on with other jobs and they are also simple enough that they can be worked by relatively unskilled labour.
There is a variety of machines available with differing levels of sophistication, various rates of operating speed and output, and requiring different numbers of staff to run them. In all cases it is important to ensure the machine will cope with the number of plants in production and the peak periods of potting, the different types and sizes of plant and different pot sizes. You also need to consider the type of compost used.
For the health and safety of your workers, remember to check that all moving parts on the machine are guarded, that there are no finger traps and that the on/off button is easy to reach and activate. Also, find out about the support and backup offered by the supplier. You do not want to be waiting three weeks for a spare part when seeds need sowing or plants need potting today.
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