US nurseries improving efficiency and reducing staffing costs

UK lagging behind US counterparts when it comes to nursery technology.

Kernock Park Plants managing director and Nuffield scholar Bruce Harnett
Kernock Park Plants managing director and Nuffield scholar Bruce Harnett

US nursery giant Metrolina's Art van Wingerden uses the mantra "automate or stagnate" and has shown how technology can help the biggest nurseries be more efficient and cut staffing costs. The issue is a hot one with labour problems on the horizon post-Brexit and Trump, but experts still doubt how quickly the typical UK nursery will take up products such as robots that pick or pack.

Many Dutch nurseries specialise in one crop and one pot size, making it easier to mechanise, he explains. Having 168 acres of glass and a turnover of $200m, with 3,400 staff, means Metrolina is big enough to have its own research and development department. Van Wingerden says transplanters, such an innovation in the late 1980s, now need to be 100 per cent effective with a machine behind the transplanter fixing the missed transplants. The challenge is to get from 20,000 plants to 60,000 an hour at 100 per cent accuracy. Robots work better for spacing pots outside because they do not forget and are always accurate, he says. They can do 250 pots per robot an hour, which may not sound like much but they can work 24 hours a day.

He has seen machines at Beekenkamp in Holland sticking calibrachoa and verbena at 2,200 cuttings an hour. That translates to two million a week at his nursery. ISO and Visser are the manufacturers. But he says there will never be 100 per cent planting by machine because low-volume crops are more cost-effectively planted by hand. He believes 10 per cent of his crops will always be hand stuck. Also, bigger containers with multiple varieties are faster planted by hand. Drones spray fast and accurately, and replace 20 staff, but he says practical applications are three years away.

Van Wingerden says the nursery has moved from working on automation in the 1980s, with faster and lower cost methods such as the transplanters, to working on breeding, packaging and logistics up to 2010. But now, technology is the focus, with real-time data on what customers such as K-Mart and Lowes are selling. Labour is 30 per cent of costs and he expects 20 per cent margin. Lowes wants 40 per cent margin so will pay $6 for a $10 retail plant.

He says 2016 trialled plants Dragon's Breath Celosia and self-watering sunflowers will be produced at 125,000 units each in 2017, meaning smoother systems are always required to keep up margins. Growing six million chrysanthemums and three million poinsettias means he has the volume to use more technology, which may mean UK nurseries must combine to make automation such as robots pay.

Kernock Park Plants managing director and Nuffield scholar Bruce Harnett has toured the world looking at nursery technology advances. He has seen a robot that digitally maps then picks apple orchards in Washington and similar vision-perception robot systems in Holland picking peppers. At Florensis in Holland a trolley-scanning machine picks up packing errors and at Beekenkamp, ISO Group robots can insert cuttings 24 hours a day. He says there is a three-year quoted payback on investment. Dutch fern propagator Vitroplus resisted a move to Poland to cut labour costs by using technical advances, in this case lighting and enclosed systems.

With Donald Trump now US president, Harnett says the availability of staff may be more difficult - Trump has been outspoken on immigration, even suggesting building a wall to keep out Mexicans, who provide a lot of cheap labour in the USA. The analogy with the post-Brexit UK is clear. Prime minster Theresa May has reiterated her commitment to reducing net migration to below 100,000 a year. Net migration to the UK in the year ending June 2016 was 335,000, of which 189,000 were EU citizens. This means robots may have a bigger role to play in the future, says Harnett, an idea that is endorsed by Professor Simon Pearson of the University of Lincoln.

Harnett says "we shouldn't go blindly into some sort of techno binge" but suggests there is potential for robots to move plants, as he has seen in California. Pearson talks of tethered systems moving Danish trolleys and mobile automated trolleys from 5D in the USA. Collaborative robots can be programmed to pick fruit and do boring or complex fine jobs by grasping and manipulating repeatedly. Filling pallets is a perfect job for a machine, he says, and it is applicable to many different industries, including horticulture.

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