Fill ‘er Up
Automated filler machines can reduce costs and improve quality.
Automated fillers, such as pot fillers and flat fillers, help growers improve product quality and save on labor costs. While such machines have been around for a long time, they’re constantly being improved with added features and increased performance. In fact, some advances even surprise experts in the filler business.
David Steiner, vice president of the Blackmore Company, Belleville, Mich., recalls the story of when its machines first went over to Europe and one of its competitors saw how well Blackmore’s trays were filling:
The competitor commented, “Well, you run that through the machine twice to get it like that.”
“No,” Steiner countered.
But the competitor insisted, “No, you can’t fill a tray that well unless you run it through the machine twice.”
“Trust me, we only run it through once,” Steiner happily responded.
Why use a filler?
According to Steiner, there are two main reasons people buy automated fillers, and they’re sort of tied together: labor savings and uniformity of the fill.
“The most obvious reason to use a filler is to save labor,” agreed Mike Kanczak, vice president of marketing and sales for AgriNomix, Oberlin, Ohio. “Production labor is the most significant cost that growers have control over. Most other costs are set by the market or external forces — for example the cost of plastics, growing media, heating oil, etc.” Growers may not be able to get the price for their finished product that they could a few years ago, but they can impact their bottom line by becoming lower cost producers.”
Kanczak added that a grower might buy a filler primarily for more efficient labor and then be pleasantly surprised by the added benefits, including the consistency and better quality of filling.
“If you fill and transplant with machines you create a better growing environment for young plants; soil compaction is consistent and plugs are planted at the same depth,” continued Kanczak. “A uniform crop will finish on time and be available when your customers want the product.”
If humans are doing the filling, it’s hard to get a uniform amount of media in each cell of each row of each tray, explained Steiner. “And if you don’t have that uniformity, you’ll see that out in the greenhouse where some plants’ cells (or pots) aren’t filled the same, the plants are going to have different growth characteristics in that cell or in that tray because it wasn’t filled the same way as the tray Á next to it; and then it makes the grower’s life a lot harder.”
There are many types of fillers, depending on the quantity and type of plants that you grow. Some of the smaller fillers are designed to just fill plug trays, whereas the larger fillers are designed for extensive production of a wide variety of media and pot sizes.
Jim Fowler, vice president of sales and marketing at Bouldin & Lawson, McMinnville, Tenn., said, “The smallest flat filler that we carry is the Mini Flat Filler…for your mom-and-pops, someone that maybe only has 25,000 or 30,000 sq.ft. of greenhouse.”
The Mini Flat Filler is a low-end flat filler with some built-in capabilities, explained Fowler. “You’re looking right at your plug flats and any containers up to 15 inches wide and up to 5 inches tall. So you can still get your 4-inch pots and your shuttle tray, but at the same time it’s a very low-production-type flat filler. It’s more or less for somebody who’s wanting to take Friday or Saturday off instead of filling pots.”
The Blackmore Tray Filler can fill small plug trays, but it also can fill pots (including hanging baskets) up to 9 inches tall, according to the company’s Web site.
“You can adjust the compaction of the media from tray to tray,” said Steiner of the Blackmore Tray Filler. “And those settings are calibrated on the machine so that you can set it and forget it.”
Growers who specialize in large numbers of potted plants might be interested in the Demtec 2016 Potting Machine distributed by AgriNomix. It’s a carousel pot filler that fills pots one at a time, rather than an entire tray.
AgriNomix also distributes the KV-98 Filling Machine, which can fill any container up to 9 inches tall and up to 16 inches wide. According to the company’s Web site, it’s an “extremely versatile” machine and “completely mobile.” KV-98 also happens to be AgriNomix’s most popular filler because of its flexibility, noted Kanczak.
One of the new fillers being distributed by Nexus Corporation, exclusive U.S. distributor of Visser ITE automation products, is the Visser Template Filler, said Bill Maartense, U.S. automation sales manager for Nexus.
“The nice thing about the template filler is that it fills pots via a template, so if you have a tray that doesn’t come to the top of the pot, making a flush, uniform fill at the top, our filler doesn’t fill any of the cavities,” explained Maartense. “It just fills the orifice of the pot that you’re using at the time.”
Essentially, template fillers conserve soil, which is something that growers are really taking a look at now, according to Fowler. “A grower who’s running 100,000 or 200,000 flats, but losing a couple of cubic inches of material in every single plat, well that turns into yards of material a season… It ends up on the ground or somewhere down the line and becomes contaminated so they can’t really throw it back in the mix.”
Bouldin & Lawson’s Maxi Pro Filler has a template, along with just about everything else. “Basically, (the Maxi Pro Filler) is just a fully automated model of your normal flat fillers. It’s got virtually every option on it that you can purchase with a filler.”
Fowler listed the Maxi Pro Filler’s features: variable speed training conveyor; variable speed soil delivery; power pot transfer for transferring the trays and allowing unused soil to be returned back into the hopper; power soil return, so that you actually power that soil back into the hopper instead of a gravity type flow.
Another automated system is the Ellepot machine, which was developed in Denmark and is distributed by Blackmore here in the United States. “It’s a different deal. When you’re making Ellepots, you’re making a system to produce young plants,” said Steiner. “It’s a propagation system. When you’re using a potting machine, then… you’re filling plastic pots that are going to be planted with young plants that have already been established in an Ellepot or some other system.”
“(An Ellepot) is a paper sleeve — that’s the skin of the sausage — and then inside the sausage we stuff it with the growing media that we want to grow in,” explained Steiner. “You can fill the Ellepot with almost any media you choose.”
Another big advantage of Ellepots is that they help plants root faster because the root zone of the media is bathed in oxygen, continued Steiner. So you have this oxygen zone always available to the plant, and that’s how you make roots, not with water; and growers have told Steiner that rooting-in times have been decreased 30-50 percent with Ellepots.
What to look for
Here are some questions you should ask yourself when deciding what type of filler to purchase:
- Do I need templates?
- What media will I be using?
- What type of flexibility (range of pot sizes to fill) do I need?
- How easy is it to switch from one size pot to another?
- What’s the maintenance like?
Also, inquire about replacement parts. Should you ever have a problem, you’ll want the parts to be shipped/repaired as soon as possible. If the parts aren’t relatively close to you geographically, then it stands to reason that the repair will take longer (which could cost you more money). However, don’t automatically dismiss companies that have manufacturers overseas. They might stock most replacement parts relatively close to where you’re located. Be sure to ask!