It is no secret the horticultural industry has struggled with labor issues both in terms of cost (minimum wage and associated benefit increases) and availability (immigration reform; lack of skilled workers). Data collected by the American Society for Horticulture Science concludes that, “Greater than 40% of production costs are labor costs, totaling nearly $40 billion per year in the U.S. alone.” The ASHS study goes on to say that, “Mechanization of an operation can provide mechanical power, speed, repetition, safety and a greater potential for consistency and quality control.”Download Whitepaper
It is important to understand the pros and cons when it comes to automated equipment which has a high upfront cost, requires some additional oversight and inspection, and, as it is a machine, can be finicky and plagued with issues if not utilized correctly. Additionally, not all growing containers are created equal.
An automation compatible container should have uniform spacing between the container rims when stacked and a defined round or square rim for automated de-stacking tools to grab for easy denesting. If there is not enough space for the automated flange, lugs or spool type strippers to grab the rim, you run the risk of pulling multiple containers into the machine all at once, with the loose containers becoming jammed in the equipment.
If you are planning on using automated handling equipment such as fork systems, you will want to make sure there is a defined rim which protrudes far enough from the container body so it can securely rest on the tines. Additionally, a sturdy side wall construction is necessary in order to withstand the force of the automated equipment (especially helpful on conveyers). If the walls are too thin, they can often crush under the machine’s pressure. However, the side walls should not be so rigid that they are unable to safely flex when the fork tines are inserted between containers.
Blow mold containers, while a popular choice for nursery growers in the field, are not ideal for use with automated equipment. Their thin, side wall construction and ribbing cause challenges with denesting equipment and conveyor tables, and the absence of a pronounced rim prevent them from being used with fork systems.
Injection containers on the other hand are a solid choice for automated equipment. Injection containers are manufactured with thick side walls and heavy bottom construction to withstand the force of automated machinery, and sturdy, protruding rims provide excellent support for automated handling equipment, as well as seamless denesting.
For growers familiar with thermoform containers, they do pose some limitations you must consider before implementing. While they are promoted as automation friendly, thermoform containers are not an ideal choice for dispensing equipment based on denesting challenges but can be used with fork systems if the rims protrude sufficiently.
It is important to remember that thermoform containers are traditionally lighter weight for a lower cost, which means they may not be able to endure the physical demands of some automated equipment.
Another thing to be aware of is the shift from de-stacking automation to suction-type container destacking equipment. In this application, a small suction cup grabs the bottom of the container directly in the center – dropping or flipping it into the corresponding tray (or conveyor system) as part of the production line. If your automated equipment has this new technology, it is important that the bottom center of the container be completely flat, otherwise the machine will be unable to properly grab it. This is important to remember when purchasing containers with “feet” designed for water mat and other unique irrigation practices as there may not be enough surface area for the suction cup to grab.
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