Cultivate’22: Inside the Green Legacy business plan

On Saturday, July 16, Jonathan Pedersen, CEO of Monrovia, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Cultivate’22 about how the nursery has implemented automation.

Monrovia has growing facilities at its Azusa, California headquarters, as well as Visalia, California, Dayton, Oregon, Granby, Connecticut and Cairo, Georgia. Monrovia grows a wide variety of plants in those locations (more than 4,000), which makes automation more difficult. Many machines are not flexible enough to do what they do for different plant sizes or types. To further complicate matters, most of today’s automation equipment comes from Europe, where the size and scale of nurseries is not the same as in the US.

So before investing a ton of time and resources into automation equipment, Monrovia analyzes whether it’s worth it.

“If you can’t measure it, you probably shouldn’t do it,” Pedersen said. “If you can’t measure the return, why are you spending the money?”

Like growing plants, testing and testing is a big part of Monrovia’s approach to automation. A data-driven approach is essential for this. There are many tasks you can automate, Pedersen said, but you have to decide which ones will be worth the investment.

“We want to keep our craftsmen in the tasks where they add value,” he said, “not bent over separation plants. Is the job best done by a human? If not, how can we automate it?”

Define the process, measure it, analyze it, improve it, then control it. Every step is critical, but Pedersen said control is the hardest because it’s hard to fight inertia.

“It’s human nature to go back to what you know, and very often we’ll update a process, prove it’s a better and more efficient process, but if you don’t stick with it, people’s habits will go back to what they were,” he said.

Before you get started with automation, you need to find or develop an ROI model to measure your return on investment. Monrovia has a simple one that helps with project prioritization.

Here is the formula Monrovia uses: ROI = [(Financial value – project cost) / Project cost] x 100

Year 3 is most often when the project breaks even and pays for itself, Pedersen said. Other important questions to ask: Can you measure the results and effect on the business? Will it require other process changes either up or down? If so, how much?

Also, be realistic about the time and resources needed to implement the automation you’re considering.

“It’s not just money,” Pedersen said.

He suggests doubling your original estimate of how long it will take to get the new process up and running.

Monrovia almost always makes adjustments to the equipment after working in the fields. One particular change that Pedersen said is extremely useful is the addition of hour meters to the machines to determine how much they are being used. This helps gauge whether a new car is delivering the ROI they were hoping for.

One of the most important lessons learned from automation in Monrovia is that it’s important to your employees about the “why” behind automation, not just the “how.” They need to feel comfortable with the equipment and understand that you are enhancing their work, not eliminating it.

“If they feel like they’re being replaced, they won’t want to use your shiny new equipment,” Pedersen said.

Start with some simple projects to get some wins under your belt. Your employees will start to buy in and hopefully become a source of new automation ideas. Expect some failures too. Sometimes you’ll buy expensive equipment and end up parking it in a field for a year while you figure out how to make it work with your existing operation. But Pedersen urges growers not to give up when you experience a setback. Automation done well can improve plant quality through uniformity and make workers’ jobs better by minimizing repetitive strain injuries.

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