Mechanisation & Automation are Australian Horticulture Industry's future

Author: Aaron Chen  Date Posted:3 February 2020 

What is the future of Australian Horticulture Industry? Before answering this question, please have a quick look at the news below first.

On 25th of February 2016, Urban Crops, which is a start up company, opened its facility in a city in the south of Belgium. It is indeed one of the largest automated plant factories in Europe.

According to the journalist who visited the demonstration site of Urban Crops which was open for the public during the opening, it is “a huge automated plant factory that is built as a climate chamber with a completely closed controllable environment; only a robot has access to the crates in which small seedlings are raised to fully grown crops”.

The horticulture automation is quite impressive in Europe. What about Australia?

Australia is behind the horticulture automation trend comparing with the advance automatic technology in Europe (Urban Crops as a good example)

First of all, let us have a close look at the Australian Horticulture Industry/Sector.

According to the document “Scoping study to review Mechanisation, Automation, Robotics and Remote Sensing in Australian horticulture” published by Horticulture Australia in 2010,

"The Australia horticulture sector is the second largest sector within Australian agriculture, being slightly less than the grains industry, but well above the combined average contributions of the wool anddairy industries. Horticulture is the second-largest and the fastest growing industry in agriculture; with some 30,000 businesses nationally, and a farm gate value of $9 billion. Total horticulture exports (including fresh fruit, vegetable, nuts and plants including flowers) were $751m (12 months to May 2008). As the most labour intensive of all agricultural industries, Horticulture employs around one-third of those employed in agriculture as a whole"

The Fact is that horticulture industry is one of the largest industries in Australia and it is labour intensive. However, most of the labour intensive industries could face these type of challenges.

  1. High production costs and low productivity;
  2. Internal and external business risks;
  3. Maintain product performance and quality control
  4. Threat from emerging economies with significantly larger and cheaper labour
  5. Various risks in managing work health and safety

According to the report of “Application of intelligent sensing systems, robotics & precision agriculture automation in vegetable production systems” published in July 2015, in Australia, the labour costs represent an average 30% of total farm costs across the vegetable sector with many tasks relying on manual labour. As labour costs increase every year in Australia, plant growers tend to look for alternative options which is mechanisation and automation.

It is true that Australia is behind the world horticulture automation trend, but we are catching up. In Australia, horticulture automation gains more and more popularity.

There are a lot of benefits of adopting mechnisation & automation in the horticulture industry.

Reduce Labour Cost

On the one hand, it is obvious that mechanism and automation reduce staff’s time and effort growing and handling plants. On the other hands, mechanism and automation help to reduce the number of part-time staff. In return, the business can make better use of full-time staff to cut labour cost. By minimising staff, staff can focus on looking at advances that will compensate for the high rising costs of employment.

Automation improves staff moral, better staff retention rates, allows for increased benefits/wages for staff, reduces the need to employ and train casual staff

Improve Output and Focus

Mechnisation and automation can greatly improve production in horticulture businesses. The increased output helps the production manager and business owner to meet the produce target within a shorter time frame providing more time available for business planning and grow of the company.

Improve Crop and Uniformity

The mechanization and automation of, for instance, filling soil or compost into trays and pots will help to dramatically improve the consistency and uniformity of the products you are growing and, therefore, help to control the overall quality. More specifically, if you use a conveyor belt and a transplanter together to transplant seedlings into shuttle trays or pots. Picking-up and depositing parameters such as working speed, transplanting depth, plants height, side way picking up etc can be consistently accomplished without having to stop the machine and continually make adjustments. Therefore, plant uniformity is achievable.

Improved Marketing

Due to mechanisation and automation, faster production and reduced costs provides a competitive advantage. New automated production lines enable businesses to experiment by making small measurable changes, without high risk to the crop and eventually the quality and quantity of product can be increased and more sales can be made.

Create More Time For Business Management

Mechanisation is important for smaller nurseries while automation is crucial for larger nurseries. For example, monotinous jobs such as potting and carrying pots around consume a lot of staff time (See example and solution below). If mechanisation and automation have been introduced, the saved time of staff can be allocated to other important tasks that again can dramatically increase productivity further.

Staff Morale

Horticulture staff sometime feel threatened by machinery and their concern is that the mechanical equipment or automatic machines will make them redundant. However, if they realise that the mechanisation and automation is there to help reduce the arduous of their jobs, staff moral will improve along with work efficiencies. It has been found that mechanisation and automation only increase the importance of existing staff, improve their skill levels and reduces the need to recruit skilled labour. (According to another nursery page “Economic Impacts of Mechanization or Automation on Horticulture Production Firms Sales, Employment, and Workers’ Earnings, Safety, and Retention”, a 10% increase in the level of mechanization reduced the hiring of new workers with horticultural skills by 4.9%. )

Click here to see more benefit about ustilising mechanisation and automation

A very simple example and explanation of why mechanization and automation improves the efficiency and productivity for horticulture business.

Gary Leeder shared his personal experience to demonstrate that a conveyor can actually save a nursery owner about 161 kilometers of walking every year.

In this case, the nursery owner was filling 9cm plastic pots and placing them into a tray, where he then carried then 5 metres to a trailer for transport out into his nursery.

His solutiuon was to install a short automated motorized conveyor and have someone else place the trays onto the trailers. The tray of pots traveled 5 metres down the conveyor to where another staff member took the tray off the conveyor and put the trays containing the pots onto a trailer. There are 10 meters in total for the walk (30 seconds to walk to the trailer and then another 30 seconds to walk back to the potting machine). If each tray holds 15 pots to pot 240,000 plants a year, 161 kilometers of walking is required. (You can calculate how much time and energy was wasted and how much it was costing the nursery owner

Usually nursery dispatch operations (from receiving orders to awaiting transport) are very labour intensive and the cost for production nurseries are quite high. According to the nursery paper of NGIA, mechanization and automation can actually increase productivity and halve production costs through improved work practices, nursery layout and logistics.

Below is the potential improvement:

  • Average cost of labour for dispatching a 140mm pot was 36 cents (ranging from 21.66 to 51.81 c/pot) and introducing improved systems can save an estimated 16.23 c/pot.
  • Picking plants from the field was the most inefficient dispatch operation (67%, or 7.65 cents/pot, potential savings possible).
  • Detailing operations (labelling, staking etc.) were mostly efficient, but better organisation of detailing tasks could save up to 20% of time spent and 73%, or 26.61 c/pot, of costs.

Take the vegetable industry as another good example, according to the research, a key robotic system that would be invaluable for leafy vegetable growers and worth the investmentis the “The Lettuce Bot field robot”. This robot is designed as a crop thinner. Lettuce growers that produce product lines such as “fancy lettuce” varieties should take full advantage of this robot as it can minimise labour by up to 12 units when it comes to thinning practices.


Technological change produces:

  1. Productivity growth in terms of more efficient resource use per unit of output and in particular yield growth,
  2. More consistent quality
  3. Substitution of capital assets (mechanisation) for labour,

Research shows that there is a shortage of skilled labour in the Australia horticulture industry. The current numbers of qualified employees are decreasing. It was seen in 2010 that 789 qualified people were involved with the horticultural industry and in 2012 this number had dropped to 667 (Ministry of Business for Innovation and Employment, 2013). It means that the labour cost is becoming higher and higher. Considering the trend in the industry and the demand, introducing more mechanisation and automation to the horticulture business is a sure way to improve productivity and reduce cost.

Mechanisation and automation is the future for the Australian horticulture industry.

Click here To learn more about C-Mac horticulture mechanical equipment

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