Using Forklift Spacers
Forklifts are now available with special attachments to automatically place and space plant material. These trucks were initially developed in Holland for spacing pots, but recent product enhancements include attachments to allow their use with flats as well.
Most of the emphasis in automation centers on headhouse operations, particularly on preparing plants for transport. Certainly, headhouse operations represent a considerable cost and can require a great deal of people, making them top candidates for automation.
An equally important area, but one that receives less emphasis, is getting material into and out of the greenhouse. One of the reasons for this oversight is that this is a uniquely North American problem. The operations in Holland that are often cited as examples of automation in material movement use techniques that are not applicable to most American growers. The prime area of difference is the greatly compressed shipping period for most U.S. growers of bedding plants, as opposed to the 52-week shipping calendar for many Dutch growers.
There are now many options available to help U.S. growers get product out of the greenhouse and to their customers on time. And none of these options involve working all night.
As with any automation, the first step is to develop your production plan. The decision of whether to grow on the floor or on benches will obviously have a significant impact on options for plant movement. To keep it simple, let's stick to material movement when growing on the floor; we'll come back later and pick up the automation available for growing on benches.
People have been growing on the floor for many years. The extra and more physically demanding labor necessitated by growing on the floor has seemed a fair trade-off for avoiding the cost of benching. However, the recent trend of using flood floors is hardly an inexpensive alternative to benches, as a flood floor system can cost as much as an automated bench system. For many crops, though, flood floors provide ideal growing conditions. The improved consistency and quality gained from an automated fertigation process provide the justification for the large expenditure. Enhanced consistency is typical of any successful automation, and its importance should never be underestimated. Flood floors also allow very efficient use of greenhouse space and allow for more flexibility than a fixed bench layout.
The major problem with growing on the floor has always been the backbreaking labor of placing and removing plant material. If the decision is made to use traditional floor-growing methods, concrete floors are strongly recommended to allow the use of automated equipment. Forklifts are now available with special attachments to automatically place and space plant material. These trucks were initially developed in Holland for spacing pots, but recent product enhancements include attachments to allow their use with flats as well.
In Holland, these trucks are used not only to place and space but, in many cases, to transport product into and out of the greenhouse. Again, this is possible because of the longer shipping calendar. In the United States, with our compressed schedules, these trucks should only be used for placing, spacing and removing plant material to another transport device for delivery to the shipping area. Using the spacing forklift to transport material is an inefficient use of an expensive asset and will severely limit the amount of material that can be moved. This is especially true where the transport distances are great.
The preferred means of transport from the spacing forklift to the shipping area will normally be carts or conveyors. While carts are not a seemingly sophisticated product, they provide a convenient and cost-effective way to transport material, especially over long distances. Conveyors can be equally effective, but they require dedicated floor space and limit access to the plant material.
The planning of the floor layout, the flow of plant material and the location of the transport aisle(s) must be an integral part of the greenhouse design. When properly executed, a flood floor operation can provide not only the best environment for plants but a highly efficient environment for material movement as well.