In the Netherlands, the IRISS hydrangea grader from 4More Technology (4MT) has been running for about a year at Kwekerij Vicini. Before that, sorting was done entirely by hand. That is not unusual; that is the only way it could be done. No machine could do the job, given the size of an average hydrangea grower. That was until the 4MT team got involved.
For most cut flower growers, processing lines have been on the market for years. These can, to a greater or lesser degree, take care of all the sorting, defoliating, cutting, bunching, and sleeving. Not so in cut hydrangea. Johan Zwinkels said when he started it in 2004, the product group was not the most innovative, and automation in this area was not yet truly taken seriously.
Johan Zwinkels, Tim van der Elst and Wouter Vreugdenhil
These days, you still do not have flowers in the winter, but aside from that, the market is quite different. It has grown considerably and reportedly has about 200 hectares. And with around 120 suppliers at Royal FloraHolland, it is competitive. Automation is needed, quality requirements are high, and nothing is left to chance.
4MT is already well represented in the rose segment and is a frontrunner in primarily vision technology. It saw those changes and, thus, picked up the ball and ran with it. It is hard to hang a hydrangea, with its seasonally ever-changing flowers, from a bracket. You could manually swing a stem in front of a camera, but if you also want the machine to cut to length and automatically sort the flowers, you need a conveyor belt.
Why not lay it down and put it in the machine horizontally? Because the bulb deforms, you cannot measure its diameter. The solution: let the flowers enter the machine at an angle, and when the belt stops and the bulb hangs in a vacuum for a fraction of a second, take a picture. The stem then falls onto a horizontal belt running just below, is cut to length, and delivered to the correct sorting outlet.
Took some getting used to
That works. And that was what impressed Johan when he saw a prototype. 'We must have that,' he knew immediately, and so it was. Mid-season - "not the best time; we had plenty of flowers," he says - the line was installed. And after a chaotic day - "you spend your life walking left and then suddenly have to go right" - the grower regained his bearings.
But you have something to show for it
The advantages are apparent: labor savings, uniformity, and a calm process. "Everyone can sort, but no one can stay sharp all day; that's simply impossible," says Johan. He is also particularly pleased with the process structure. Tasks are clearly divided, so there is far less scrambling. And "you can easily walk away from the machine."
That is something the 4MT team has heard from many other growers, too. "They often do their own bunching because they want to know what goes out, and so have some control over the quality. Now you don't have that worry anymore, and you're free to do something else," say the 4MT representatives.
Ready for the future
After Peeters Hortensia, Vicini is the second nursery with an IRISS Hortensia grader. Since its launch last year, the engineering firm, which also offers its vision technology and logistics automation solution for other crops, has sold just less than a dozen of them. For a nursery the size of Vicini's - two hectares, where, in high season, up to seven thousand stems are harvested per day - the machine has more than enough capacity.
'We could easily have ten hectares," says Jack, Johan's son, enthusiastically. He formally and legally took over the company last week. That might be a little too ambitious, but he can put it to good use with their 3.5-hectare new nursery at a second location, to which father and son will move in a few months.