Automation: Gear up

Decker’s Nursery sees automation as one solution to scarce labor and improved production.

Labor and automation were two hot topics at the NGBC meeting in September. With a broken immigration system, labor is hard to find and getting more expensive. Participants discussed how automation will help fill the gap. Here’s a real-world example of how NGBC attendee Brian Decker is handling the labor shortage.

In a video blog post on the Decker’s Nursery website, Brian Decker sports a shirt that reads, “Irony: The Opposite of Wrinkly.”

Ironically, that phrase accurately describes how Decker regards automation at his Groveport, Ohio, nursery. Straightening out the many wrinkles that impede the production process takes so much more than just buying an iron.

“Automating isn’t simply buying a robot and writing a check,” he comments. “It’s planning and developing an entire system around the specific operation. You have to think about how the particular equipment will affect every phase and function, from plants entering the front door to fully-loaded trucks driving out of the lot. Every aspect of production needs to fit into the overall automation system.”

That complex way of thinking can be daunting to an industry that has remained generally stagnant in regards to production innovation.

“Back when I started in this business, we basically jumped tractors to go from job to job, and the best means of moving something was with a wheelbarrow,” Decker says. “The nursery business is an extremely labor-intensive business. In the old days it took all day for three guys to dig seven or eight trees. That same job takes about 15 minutes now.”

In addition to acclimating to a steady evolution of technology and equipment at the nursery, Decker points out that the market has evolved as well.

“Estimating the markets has become challenging,” he notes. “In the 1960s and ‘70s, gardening was the most popular American pastime. Today the market is saturated. It’s a mature market instead of an expanding one.”

A mature market has compelled Decker’s Nursery to adjust its business model, which now is made up of three main facets of production involving field stock, finished stock and a propagation department.

“In the past 15 years we’ve taken a look at the propagation side of the business and said, ‘This is what we do well, so let’s do it on a really big scale,’” Decker says.

But big scale generally leads to big overhead, especially when it comes to labor. “We simply don’t have the people available to get the work done,” admits Decker. “We’re constantly looking for ways to get people willing to do this work. They may like to work outside, but if it’s too labor intensive they won’t want to do it. Folks will not be attracted to jobs that take a toll on their bodies. So a more mechanized function is easier on the workers and makes the work more attractive.”

Making the jump to automation

Decker’s Nursery has gradually automated many key areas of production during the past decade, but the move to automation was definitely a learning curve, according to Decker. “It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle,” he says. “You first have to get through the issues of integrating the equipment with your existing structure, systems and operation.”

He cites an example: “We purchased an AgriNomix spacing fork attachment several years ago for our material handling operation and spent the next two years cycling out our old pots for new ones that worked better with the equipment,” he says. “We had to change out our entire system to improve the operation.”

That modification, albeit a lengthy one, has enabled the nursery to vastly improve its material handling operation. “We’re doing 20 percent more volume than before the recession, with about 45 percent of the workforce,” Decker reports.

Other nursery modifications made to accommodate automation include expanding irrigation systems to fit between lines, reconfiguring greenhouse sizes to fit equipment, adjusting plant rows so that automated trimming machines can move over the plants, and covering outdoor lots with screening material for robotic material handling equipment.

Even tasks performed by something as mundane as a conveyor system were rethought.

“We purchased several portable conveyor systems a while back that we now use in so many applications,” Decker says. “We’ve learned how to set up and take down a conveyor in 12 to 15 minutes. We’ve automated our plant labeling process with these conveyors and also run them right up onto our trailers.”

Decker notes that cost is secondary to the problem-solving capability of the equipment one is considering.

“The first thing you have to ask is if this solution is really solving a problem,” he says. “We purchased a trimmer from AgriNomix and the discussion didn’t just focus on price. They helped us answer the important questions like, ‘Will it allow us to do things better? Will it improve our quality? Will it help us get the job done in a more timely fashion? It is employee friendly? Is it labor intensive?’”

The tangible and intangible benefits of automation

But the advantages of automation extend far beyond the nursery, according to Decker.

“There’s the value that an accountant can quantify, then there’s a value that isn’t expected, like uniform-looking boxwood plants on the retail floor that buyers are really attracted to,” says Decker. “That’s another key benefit.”

Decker admits that envisioning and implementing automation is a “real pain,” but the benefits far exceed the time needed to plan and the costs associated with buying new equipment.

“Because of automation, Decker’s Nursery has learned how to change our business through mechanics and through being lean, to have a streamlined, labor-friendly operation,” he says. “I’m always asking if it’s time to part with the ‘old way’ and change up the process in order to cut expenses, save on labor costs, take better advantage of seasonal production, improve quality and get more product to market that generates a better return.”


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