Mechanical help

Features - Automation

Automated potting more than tripled productivity, eliminating labor shortages.

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August 3, 2016
John Burnell
Jeff Little, Latham’s South Carolina division manager, (left) and Hunter Latham, nursery vice president, visited with fellow growers and did a lot of research before implementing potting line automation.

Latham’s Nursery consistently grew its plants, flowers and customer base faster than it could grow its workforce to keep up with them. Labor shortages were a perennial problem for the nearly 50-year-old, family-owned wholesale nursery that operates out of three locations in the Charlotte, N.C., area.

“Last year we needed 10 extra people at our South Carolina location. We hired more than 30 people there, but we were never able to be fully staffed,” says Hunter Latham, who grew up in the family business and is now the president. “We had a lot of concerns about automated equipment, but we really had no other choice than to automate.”

Latham’s Nursery has more than 140 acres dedicated to container production. It supplies hollies, maples, junipers, camellias, magnolias, crape myrtles and other ornamentals to customers through the northeastern U.S. It also sells other shrubs, trees, topiaries, groundcovers, grasses, perennials, vines and supplies. Operations remained mostly manual as Latham’s Nursery grew, but a shrinking labor pool, including a sharp reduction in available migrant workers, made it increasingly difficult for the company to find and retain enough employees.

Hunter Latham had considered automating potting operations several times in the past. He visited other growers to see their automated systems and did a lot of homework on equipment manufacturers. He concluded that automation could improve productivity. However, he also concluded that potting machines might very well introduce a new set of problems, including high maintenance costs, unplanned downtime and potential resentment by the current workforce, which the nursery couldn’t afford to lose.

“A lot of people I talked to warned me that if we went with an automated potting machine, we’d have to stock extra belts and other spare parts and be prepared for breakdowns. New equipment is a big investment, and I was very concerned that it wouldn’t perform as advertised,” Latham says.

Automation takes root

Despite having serious reservations, two things changed Latham’s mind about the need to automate. First was the deteriorating labor situation. Second was finding a reliable equipment provider.

Prior to the potting machine, a crew of four potted 1,600-1,800 3-gallon pots a day. Now the same sized crew is potting 6,000 a day, and in less time.

“We wanted to be sure we weren’t just getting something that would work for the short term, but will work out for the long term,” says Latham.

After assessing vendors and considering his options, Latham chose a double version of the Nursery Potter from AgriNomix, as well as a soil delivery system, which Latham’s Nursery ordered for its South Carolina facility. The all conveyor belt unit uses the belt-over-roller design throughout the machine to prevent wear and totally eliminate the slide beds that typically rust out on potters, according to Latham. An AgriNomix technician oversaw the installation, trained the staff and helped conduct several dry runs before the equipment was put into production, Latham adds.

“The machine has been very reliable,” says Latham. “The only issue we had was when a wind storm knocked over some items that damaged the machine. We called customer support and they had us up and running again very quickly.”

Productivity blooms

The automated Nursery Potter can fill pots up to 25 gallons. Latham’s Nursery uses the double version to fill 3-gallon pots from one unit and 7- and 15-gallon pots from the other. Productivity has soared for all sizes.

“We used to have four guys potting 3-gallon pots, and they could fill about 1,600 to 1,800 in a day. Now we’re potting 6,000 a day basically with the same people, and they spend less time doing it,” says Latham. “We used to do up to 500 of the 7- and 15-gallon pots in a day, now we can do 450 to 500 per hour.

“My advice to anyone that is considering something like this is to talk to people that have these machines and go see one work,” he adds. “If you’ve never seen automation in nursery operations, it is eye opening to see what can be done.”

Latham estimates that the labor productivity improvement will pay for the investment in equipment within three years. The time savings also have produced other benefits for Latham’s Nursery. For one, managers don’t have to spend so much time struggling to find, train and retain employees, because the increased productivity has eased the pressure to add people.

The potting time savings were especially valuable as Latham’s Nursery prepared for the busy spring season.

“This is the first year we were all caught up on our potting going into spring,” says Latham, who noted the time savings contribute to better product quality. “The less time people spend on potting, the more time they spend working in the nursery.”

The automated potting system more than tripled productivity and met Latham’s goal of reducing the need for more labor. It also satisfied his concerns about reliability. As for the concern about employees accepting automation?

“Our employees absolutely love it, because it makes their work so much easier,” says Latham. “Now no one is overworked, people are getting more than twice as much work done than they used to, and they’re doing it with smiles on their faces.”

John Burnell is a freelance writer and editor based in Olmsted Falls, Ohio.