Repairing Automation

December 12, 2003 - 09:32

If you think you can't use automated equipment because it breaks down all the time, think again.

Today's equipment is more sophisticated than that of 10 years ago and relies more heavily on electronics. This does not, however, mean it is harder to keep in service. In fact, today's equipment is more reliable and easier to keep in full production. . . if the grower knows what to expect and how to perform preventative maintenance.

"What happens if I invest in an automated transplanting line and reduce my headcount, and then the machine breaks down in the middle of my busiest time? I don't have highly skilled electronics repairmen on staff, and I no longer have extra personnel for a manual line to get my greenhouse filled."

This is probably the most common grower concern when thinking about automating, and it is a valid one. Today's equipment is more sophisticated than that of 10 years ago and relies more heavily on electronics. This does not, however, mean it is harder to keep in service. In fact, today's equipment is more reliable and easier to keep in full production. . . if the grower knows what to expect and how to perform preventative maintenance.

Mechanical Nostalgia

Since I spent many years in the automotive business, I know I use too many automotive analogies, but I think it is appropriate here. Many of us are old enough to have a soft spot in our hearts for an old '67 Chevy or '65 Mustang. One of the pleasures of those cars was that you could work on them yourself. Some people seem to long for a return to that type of car. But do we really want that?

It is true that short of changing the oil, it takes a trained mechanic to work on today's cars. However, if we were to put sentiment aside, most of us wouldn't want to go back to the good old days for everyday transportation. Today's cars are more reliable than those of 30 years ago. Manufacturers today are offering powertrain warranties of 50, 60 and even 100 thousand miles because of their comfort level with reliability. In short, breakdowns are less frequent, and seldom do you lose an engine or transmission. Additionally, intervals between regular maintenance have been extended. It is true that the ordinary person cannot work on today's cars, but we really don't need to.

In the good old days, many an hour was spent diagnosing problems. Replacing parts was done somewhat on a trial and error basis, where many a part was replaced that didn't need to be. One of the best things to come with today's increased reliance on electronics is vastly improved diagnostics. Today's cars are easily plugged in, and in most cases, the problem is quickly identified.

Repairs themselves are also done more quickly and more reliably. In most cases, parts are simply replaced. Carburetors are no longer adjusted and parts are not ground. The tradeoff, of course, is that today's repairs are more costly on a part-by-part basis. But over the normal life of a car, with today's increased reliability, that difference is minimal.

Today's Automation

The current state of automation equipment parallels most of the above points. Today's equipment is not only faster and more precise than that of a few years ago, it is also more reliable. One of the key elements of a successful installation is the initial setup. Done properly, breakdowns should be infrequent. Most problems in greenhouse equipment are also relatively easy to diagnose, with many pieces having an internal modem that can send information to the manufacture anywhere in the world for diagnosis of difficult problems. My experience is that 75-80 percent of the problems that cannot be diagnosed by the grower are successfully diagnosed over the phone by a technical assistant, without the modem. Technicians can get to the site quickly in those rare instances where the problem cannot be solved routinely.

What about the people required? They do not need four-year degrees. What they need is training. It is in the interest of manufacturers to provide as much training as possible. Most problems with electronics result in diagnosing and replacing a bad part. Work done on machines consists of tightening and adjusting belts and grippers. This is mechanical work that most greenhouse maintenance people are comfortable with. The number of parts needed at the greenhouse for most repairs is small and inexpensive. Your manufacturer can give you a suggested list. The most important things to remember, though, are that breakdowns in today's equipment should be infrequent and the time to bring equipment back on line should be short.

Routine Maintenance

 

What can be done to minimize breakdowns even more than the inherent reliability of the equipment? Back to my car analogy, most of us have someone on staff who loves their car. They keep it washed and waxed. They change the oil much more frequently than recommended. They get regular tune-ups. Find that person, and put him in charge of your automated equipment.

Routine maintenance is critical for successful operation of any equipment. Someone must be clearly responsible for that maintenance, which is not difficult. Daily cleaning is the single most important factor in enhancing reliability. Dirt creates friction, and friction creates wear. A typical list of weekly maintenance items on a transplanter would be:

*                Clean and straighten gripper needles.

*                Check gripper assembly and cylinders for loose air connections.

*                Clean gripper beams with silicone spray and a cloth. Wipe off excess.

*                Check gripper car assemblies and clean with silicone spray.

*                Check and clean switches and sensors.

*                Check all cylinders for sticking.

*                Check drive belts for wear.

*                Drain water from pressure regulator and air lines.

*                Blow off any excess dirt and dust.

Additional monthly maintenance would include cleaning caked soil from inside the gripper needle guides.

The above items are not time consuming and will ensure the best possible performance of your equipment. Concern over your ability to maintain and repair the equipment should not be a reason to delay pursuing the advantages of automation.

About The Author

Mike Porter is president of Nexus Corporation, Northglenn, Colo. For questions about automation and implementation, he can be reached by phone at (303) 457-9199 or E-mail at automation@nexus.corp.com.

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