From automation to advanced inventory records, technology has proved fruitful, even in the business of producing flowers.
The advancement of technology in the past decade has moved the floriculture industry forward light years, making a better product faster, all while increasing efficiency.
Ter Laak Orchids, a third-generation family-owned orchid farm in the Westlands region of the Netherlands, has used a mixture of hands-on approach with extraordinary amounts of automation to the tune of about 6 million plants annually. A gallery of Ter Laak Orchids can be found here.
The upfront costs are high, but Richard Ter Laak, owner of Ter Laak Orchids, said that investment pays itself off rather quickly.
“Sustainable business, with respect for the environment and humankind, is the basis of our management approach at Ter Laak Orchids,” the owners stated.
Through solar panels on the roof of its glass greenhouses and fully insulated glasshouse facades, three internal screens, heat and cold energy sources and a heat pump have helped the company reduce its energy usage by 25 percent.
The greenhouses use 100 percent recycled water and also stores energy from the sun harvested during the day to use at night.
“During the day, we have too much (light) so we can store it and, in the night, when the engines are off, we can use the energy to heat at night,” Ter Laak said.
Inside the glass walls of the greenhouses, technology is a huge part of the growing process from beginning to end.
Grown from tissue cultures for 30 weeks, plants are then potted. At that point, the plants, riding along a moving belt, are sorted by size by a camera, which can also determine different varieties.
Once out of production, the plants are moved by robot to the greenhouse. Sitting at a computer, an operator can mark different tables of plants to be brought to and from the greenhouse by the “train” robot, which is self-driven. They are cooled, where blooming begins.
Ter Laak, like many large-scale companies in the Netherlands, has invested an incredible amount of time and money in efficiency, because of its effect on its bottom line — better product at reduced cost — and its impact on the environment.
“In the U.S., they are very good at marketing and advertising, but when you look at quality and efficiency, we do it much better here,” Ter Laak said.
But Western Europe isn’t the only place efficiency through advanced technology is at the forefront.
Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Mich., which produces about 18 million perennials per year, has a constant eye on technology. Flower producers especially have to be creative in how they can develop, create and implement new technology.
“A lot of the technology developed is not out-of-the-box or specific (to floriculture),” said Troy Shumaker, chief financial officer with Walters. The industry often has to repurpose technology developed for other uses or companies will contract with engineers to develop new technology.
Where Walters has made the most progress in new technology is in its inventory, where as recent as a decade ago workers would handwrite product information on labels and orders were picked from inventory by walking through the aisles with a clipboard and list of tracking numbers.
Now, Shumaker said, as they glide down an assembly-type belt, flowers are boxed by employees and scanned into a software system coded specifically for Walters. A scanner along the belt then reads its barcode and slaps on a label, which shows everything from the plant’s age in weeks to the variety.
Each point along the path from the soil to the customer is tracked via the scanning system. Once in storage, the plants can be found simply by looking it up in the system, which operates through a wireless network in the company’s main facility.
“Everything is live. It drives efficiency and creates a better product,” Shumaker said.
A better product, grown faster.