Integrating Automation By Mackenzie Gaffney

From transplanters to environmental controls to shade systems, the benefits multiply when it works together.

Putting off total integration only leaves you farther behind with less time to catch up. Fortunately, it’s never too late to create an integrated greenhouse automation plan.

Integrating automation into the total plan of your greenhouse sounds like a laborous process, especially if you don’t have the means, mode or time to think about it.

Think about it, though. If the main reason for making an automation addition is saving time and labor, you can’t do that without a plan. Putting off total integration only leaves you farther behind with less time to catch up. Fortunately, it’s never too late to create an integrated greenhouse automation plan.

Why Integrate?

Mike Porter, president of Nexus Corporation, Northglenn, Colo., described automation to a tee in the “Automation vs. Mechanization” article in the March 2002 issue of GPN. “Mechanization is normally defined as the replacement of a human task with a machine. Automatic transplanters are an example of mechanization. But, true automation encompasses more than mechanization. Automation involves the entire process, including bringing material to and from the mechanized equipment. It normally involves integrating several operations and ensuring that the different pieces of equipment talk to one another to ensure smooth operation. Many times, true automation requires re-evaluating and changing current processes rather than simply mechanizing them.”

For example, you might have stuck your filling machine in the back corner of the headhouse to keep it from disrupting traffic flow. Sounds like a good idea, but is it easy to load? Is it close to your media storage area? What about your potting area? Examination of all processes from start to finish might lead you to move the filler to another location to more fully automate the planting process and take full advantage of the machinery.

Bozeman, Mont.-based WTC, Inc. is an environmental controls company whose purpose is to help create one system that integrates many of the machine functions within a greenhouse. Kathi Swingle, vice president of WTC, helped explain some of the benefits of moving to a computerized system. “We make a hardware system that we configure for each greenhouse customer,” said Swingle. “It has everything in it and allows the customer real-time viewing of all their parameters that they have set. Also, controlling such items stabilizes the greenhouse at the most cost effective way.”

Using California’s six-fold energy increases in 2001/2002 as an example, Peter Styut, vice president of Total Energy Solutions, Summerland, Calif., said another important reason people should integrate is because of the energy savings. Energy prices were bad everywhere in 2001/2002, but in California they were unbearable. Styut agrees that a fully integrated greenhouse can really pay off in times like these. He believes that utilizing automation systems with an energy-efficient means is a profitable way to growing business and cutting costs. “Energy has become quite an issue,” said Styut. “I think that it should drive people’s investment decisions now and for the future.”

“It was so bad in California,” continued Styut, “that people sold property, money poured out of businesses and no one invested because there was simply no money available. Since then people have been investing, and the gas companies, through state programs, have been supportive by handing out incentive money to growers Á who are doing energy-related investments; it has been good. And I feel for right now that energy bills should be looked at and responded to by energy-efficient investments, because I don’t see the energy prices coming down.”

Starter packages

Let’s say you wanted to take Styut’s suggestion, your first question might be, “What do energy-efficient systems look like?” Well, Styut explained, “More efficient heating systems would be a good example. You can further integrate with carbon dioxide and heat storage. Carbon dioxide, well applied, in all kinds of different crops, can increase your production from 10-25 percent. If you can squeeze that out of the same space as you are trying to heat right now, those are increases that make your investment only more valuable and spread your cost down to over more units produced.”

In Porter’s article from GPN, he used an example of a fully integrated transplanting line. “A typical line would consist of automatic destackers for trays and automatic dispensers for pots. These two machines would be connected by means of a conveyor to a flat filling machine that fills the destination trays with soil and levels of the soil. The flat filler would be connected by conveyor to an automatic transplanter. A second conveyor could be used to feed source trays into the transplanter. After transplanting, the destination trays would move onto another conveyor, which could feed an automatic tagging machine and then go through a watering tunnel before being placed onto a final conveyor to be staged for delivery to the greenhouse, a process that can be automated as well.”

As you can see, you can integrate most every process in the greenhouse — from heating to irrigation — into your automation plan. Obviously, the best place to start is with the processes that will save you the most money and/or make the biggest impact on your efficiency. For one greenhouse it might be a conveyor system to transport flats from headhouse to greenhouse and back. For another greenhouse it might be an environmental control system to monitor temperatures and open and close greenhouse vents. There are literally packages to fit every greenhouse and every need. The key is sitting down and plotting your space and needs with an experienced consultant or advisor. There are things you should consider before going to someone to design a system for your production…partially, because the system should be about utilizing what you have, and partially because you want it to be cost-effective. “The main thing,” explained Swingle, “is [to know] the parameters that they [the customer] want monitored and controlled, and what their ultimate goal is. The parameters might be solar, outside and/or inside temperature, rain gauges, wind speed, wind direction, which will help decide if they want vents or not. Also, controlling wet walls, heaters, fans, blowers, misters, lights…we can monitor soil temperature, moisture, pH, acidity, carbon dioxide and fertilizing systems.” In short, a fully integrated system eliminates the need for growers to constantly make changes and check to make sure those are right.

Easing Concerns

By now, you’re hopefully sold on the idea of integrating, but probably a little skeptical about actual implementation, particularly cost. Before you write off this idea as too expensive, talk with your manufacturer representatives; they want to work with you and meet your needs. They know cost is a big concern for you and are willing to do whatever they can to help in that area (see page 26-27 for more information about financing options).

“The biggest concerns are actually on price,” Swingle said. “On our end, there is always a lot of discussion. We always try and come up with a good solution for them [our customers]. All the little concerns come out through those conversations.”

A second deterrent that you may be considering is integrating everything at one time. No worries; no one expects you to fully automate over night; you can add a little at a time. Rest-assured that most systems are expandable and are able to add configurations or more capacity when you can afford it or when you add to your production.

Mackenzie Gaffney

Mackenzie Gaffney is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1013 or E-mail at

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