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ASB Farmsmarts: Robots and people working together

29 April 2018 / Published in Tech & Innovation
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We know sustainable practices are the way of the future - New Zealand’s clean green image relies on it. What can’t be overlooked in the conversation is that sustainability can also lead to more efficient, smarter business operations.

Rainbow Park Nurseries is home to some of the country’s most technologically advanced green houses. General Manager Andrew Tayler says the company’s vast robotics and systems not only reduce environmental impact, but also go a long way towards reducing costs.

“We use a Priva environmental computer system to run all our glass house functions.  These include venting, moving shade screens, watering, spraying, sulphur burners, irrigation, fertigation, cooling, mist and just about everything you can think of that happens in a commercial nursery.”

These systems have resulted in best practice; reused and recycled water, less fertiliser, controlled spraying, even biodegradable pots built from an in-house paper pot machine. More importantly, they also allow for very exact control over almost all aspects of the glass house.

 “Everyone likes to be clean and green - but there are also benefits. We don’t use as much heat, natural gas or other resources to heat the buildings because the computers can make adjustments based on the outside temperatures.”

“In the old days all of that was done manually, and if you weren’t quick enough your glass houses would be cold very quickly. You had to go and manually flick down vents and turn on heaters.”

“Our technology is making us more efficient and sustainable for a cleaner and greener business. We use fewer resources to produce more. It’s saving us money while helping us get a better margin out of our products.”

Andrew’s father Peter started Rainbow Park Nurseries in 1975. Taking over the Mt. Wellington nursery of a tomato grower, he started growing house plants and personally delivering them around Auckland. As the business grew, the Mt. Wellington site was swapped for an event larger one in Ramarama. Now, Rainbow Park Nurseries supplies 1.5 million plants to retailers across the country, including the likes of Mitre 10, Bunnings, Kings, The Warehouse and Palmers.

In the early days, demand for the best plants available led Peter and the team to look overseas. It’s travelling that Andrew credits with Rainbow Park Nursery’s advanced technological practices and something they continue to do today.

“My father Peter has always had a real focus on making sure the business always had the world’s best production techniques and facilities to make sure we grew the best possible plants for our customers.”

 “All of the stuff we’ve implemented here, none of it’s new. You might get the odd new idea, but 99% of the ideas and the technology are already in use overseas. If you visit a nursery in Australia or Italy or the United States you’ll always learn something.”

Staying ahead of the curve isn’t always easy. As much of the technology used in Rainbow Park is introduced from overseas, there is little education or support available back home.

“We’ve had to learn how all this new machinery works and how to repair, service and reprogram the gear when necessary as most of the suppliers are over half a world away. A lot of the technology is pretty new yet, so the universities and polytechs aren’t able to really show and teach future staff what’s going on.”

“We don’t have the technical people in New Zealand, or even in the southern hemisphere, for some of this sort of machinery. When you go over there and invest in this new technology you’ve got to be pretty sure that if the supplier doesn’t have support in Australia or New Zealand you can run it yourself.”

Despite that, the challenges have been worth it. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do today, without the technology we have,” says Andrew. “This level of output would’ve been possible but pretty inefficient. We would’ve needed a hell of a lot more people.”

“There’s more technology we’d like to bring over in the next two years. The end goal is just to keep on delivering better and better plants. This will help us do that.”

ASB Farmsmarts | Robots and people working together
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