Jim Bajema, Smith Gardens:

"When I walk into that production facility now operations are much calmer than they used to be"

Today’s North American Growers are faced with some very difficult challenges as they work to survive and thrive. The current market environment they are faced with often requires them to produce a large range of products in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, it is difficult to maximize efficiency when you sell such a diverse range of products.

This is the challenge that Smith Gardens faced as they looked to streamline their production and increase the efficiency of their processes.

Meet Smith Gardens
If you ever find yourself traveling through the beautiful Willamette Valley of Aurora, Oregon, you may just pass by a large expanse of greenhouses, spanning a total of 25 acres. These greenhouses belong to Smith Gardens; a well-known grower who supplies plants to retailers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Western Canada, and even Alaska.

Over the years Smith Gardens has expanded to 4 locations along the west coast. They have been able to do so due to their dedication to providing quality plants to their customers year-round. Another key factor to their growth is their mentality towards forward thinking and development.

Having been in operation for 118 years Smith Gardens has gained extensive knowledge of the industry through experience. They understand the value in continuous learning as they grow both in size and volume. This has led them to be committed to maintaining a high level of efficiency in all their facilities to produce a quality product
It was several years ago when the people at Smith Gardens recognized the need for improvement in their production at the Aurora location. They knew that they needed a solution that was both efficient and could meet the growing demand for their products.

Looking for a North American solution
There were two key factors that led Smith Gardens to seek out automation as their solution. As many growers already can guess, the first factor was labor.
“The biggest drivers are both labor availability and ever increasing costs of labor”, says Jim Bajema the Facilities Director at Smith Gardens.
Not only are growers across North America struggling with high turnover, but they are also having a hard time simply finding people to fill the positions they have available.

The second key driving force that led them to automation was the need for a solution that was efficient and streamlined.

The first step they took towards finding a solution was to look at those who have already turned to automation. In the many trips to Europe over the years, the people from Smith Gardens have visited numerous growers utilizing automation in their production systems.

It was here that they continued to see the large discrepancy between the North American grower and European growers. Due to differences in the market growers in Europe can grow large mono-crops. This allows them to use machinery without the same diverse range of abilities in their machines and production lines that are essential for any North American grower.
The solution that Smith Gardens was looking for needed to fulfill a few different requirements. First and foremost, as every grower knows, it needed to have a good return on investment. Jim Bajema describes a good ROI as roughly 2 years in simple payback terms. He also makes the point that there are times when you are looking at an ROI of 3 to 5 years or longer, which is acceptable when the investment has good long-term benefits.

Secondly, it needed to be a solution that was of high quality and durable enough to last for many years. This led them to Bellpark Horticulture, a solutions provider committed to supplying only the best quality machines from the best manufacturers. Through their close partnerships with Mayer, Visser, and Logitec they ensure that their equipment has the sturdiest builds made from the best materials which allows for lower maintenance costs down the road. In addition to this a dedicated team of Bellpark customer support staff and technicians are always available for any parts or service requests.

Visser Spacing Machine with Spacing Forks

Working out the details
Bellpark Project Consultants worked with Smith Gardens to design a system that would help overcome the challenges that they were experiencing with their production lines.
They needed to develop a system that was capable of processing their entire range of products without pause or idle time as the products were transported across the long greenhouses.
The production solution that Smith Gardens and Bellpark Horticulture developed together involved four production lines, which together can cover all the production requirements that Smith Gardens faces. These production lines each have different purposes and capabilities which are determined by the choice of automated machines in each.

Mayer's 2400 DR Potting Machine

Many of the products sold by Smith Gardens are planted in pots. As a result, it was decided that the first production line would start with a 2400 DR potting machine by Mayer. The machine’s outstanding quality guarantees high planting quality with a consistently centered planting hole. Mayer’s 2400 DR Potting Machines have been known to pot up to 7,000 pots per hour and can process a variety of pot sizes. Smith Gardens needed the 2400 DR for three specific pot sizes and has them planted into by hand. 

Other plants grown by Smith Gardens are planted in various sized and shaped pots and hanging baskets. These are accommodated for in a hand planting line which was built with basic conveyor belts ideal for hand planting and filling. This line is also excellent for the smaller batch products that Smith Gardens needs on occasion.

The Visser PC-21

There are many other types of products that need to be planted in large batches. These products are often in flats, pots, or pots in trays. It was decided that there would be two lines to process these large batch products so that all sizes and shapes could be accommodated for. The first of these features one of Visser’s highly flexible PC-21’s and the second features a PC-31 Redline transplanter.
The PC-31 is more than capable of efficiently handling the larger batches with an impressive maximum capacity of up to 38,000 plants per hour. Their use of 24 servo-controlled grippers allows the machine to be as flexible as they are fast. The PC-31 is a transplanter designed for growers with a wide range of trays and different transplanting programs.
It was determined that at the end of each line Bellpark Horticulture would place a Bellpark WT-700 watering tunnel and a Vimax wide belt. The watering tunnel is a high-quality piece of equipment that recycles almost 100% of water not absorbed by the pots and plants. As the products exit the watering tunnel they are moved onto the Vimax which efficiently buffers, collects and evenly spaces pots to be ready for transportation into the greenhouse.

Bellpark's WT-700 Recycling Water Tunnel

This is where they run into the second challenge in designing the production lines, the transport time. The Aurora location has long greenhouses and they needed to transport products from the production line to their correct bay without stalling the production line. Bellpark’s solution was to integrate two Visser Spacing Machines (VSM’s) with double transport forks. This allows the Smith Garden employees to quickly transport large numbers of pots.

Visser Spacing Forks and Vimax Wide Belt

Present day production
When we asked what production is like now, Jim Bajema said that “when I walk into that production facility now operations are much calmer than they used to be.”
He goes on to describe how the Aurora greenhouses now operate more smoothly throughout the day than they did without automation. He also spoke of how the nature of the labor has changed, allowing them to run a swing shift for employees rather than the 10-12 hour days previously needed to fulfill production requirements and to take full advantage of the investment.

Bellpark's WT-700 Recycling Water Tunnel

Looking at the future
Moving forward Smith Gardens is looking to expand a few of their lines to accommodate trays, allowing for more versatility in their production lines.

For more information:
Bellpark Horticulture

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