Greenhouse automation: Improving efficiency

Cannabis growers should eliminate bottlenecks to increase speed and productivity

Maintaining or creating the ideal environment is the most important factor for not only growing cannabis, but also establishing a sustainable business. In today’s markets it’s not enough to simply be able to grow year-round; operations also need to be able to remain profitable year-round. Controlled environment agriculture can be costly during parts of the year, so it’s essential that growers look for ways to reduce overall operating costs.

Automating greenhouse or grow room systems is the perfect way to fight climbing operating costs, and the more systems that are automated, the more efficient the grow can become.

Matt Sauls, a cannabis specialist at GrowSpan Greenhouse Structures, has extensive experience growing cannabis and designing greenhouse systems. He answered some questions on automation, and one of the more interesting takeaways was that not only does automation support a more profitable business, but the data collected by the controllers can provide invaluable knowledge.

 

Christopher Machnich: What do you see as the most important factor in automation?

 

Matt Sauls: I think the most important and exciting part of it is the data. All of these systems are operating off sensors that are also feeding operations valuable data. In cannabis, we haven’t had a lot of reliable data to go on, but we’re starting to get a lot more from reputable institutions, companies and individual grows thanks in part to the computers used to automate greenhouse systems.

CM: We’ve definitely noticed a lack of knowledge industry-wide, but how can individual grows take advantage of this new data?

 

MS: Having access to that data allows you to optimize all sorts of things. Growers can see the big picture and have a historical record to improve on past harvests by correcting mistakes and diagnosing problems.

 

CM: What are some specific examples?

 

MS: You could look at diet or nutrient recipes. Strains are all different, and today there are growers growing in areas where cannabis has traditionally never been grown. Data allows you to note these parameters and the diet for generation one and then see what happens if you make recipe changes for generation two. This way you can optimize for a certain strain or maybe different stages in the lifecycle.

CM: So grows can easily improve crop quality with this data?

 

MS: Yes. If you get a really good yield for one generation, and you want to replicate it, pull that data and see what was going on that caused that plant to perform so well. From a regulatory standpoint, pretty much every state, if they’re not already, is going to require some kind of testing of the end product, whether it’s marijuana or hemp. The data will tie those testing numbers to what is going on at the facility, so grows can optimize to increase factors, like oil production and terpene content, or to limit pathogens — or preferably not have any at all.

CM: What should growers look to automate?

 

MS: Definitely the bottlenecks, the things that are taking a lot of time and holding up other processes. In cannabis, just about everybody is going to have lights on timers or automated light dep. These things need to run like clockwork, so outside of that look where issues can be.

One facility I worked on was all hand-trimmed product. With this, maybe they lose some employees or don’t have enough labor on a given day. If this happens, they’re not going to get product out. This process could have been automated, and then the risk is eliminated.

CM: How can automation help with high-cost systems, like lighting or heating?

 

MS: The environmental computers will be controlling heating and lighting, so if they’re programmed correctly, it’ll make sure you’re only using expensive systems, like lighting and heating, when you need them. If you go to our new greenhouse at GrowSpan in Iowa, you’ll notice that the lighting won’t be on if it’s sunny, but if the clouds roll in, the sensor will turn on the lighting if levels drop below a certain set point. The same with heating. We can do things, like turn the systems off when they aren’t necessary. If we don’t need sun, we can also automatically close shade curtains, which double as heat curtains, so you’re heating a smaller area.

CM: Can automation help growers get any energy rebates or incentives?

 

MS: I haven’t specifically seen anything automation-related as far as rebates go, but cities and counties are offering rebates for using high-efficiency lighting, like LEDs. I would imagine as grow facilities get larger and use more energy, the local governments are going to look for ways to incentivize highly efficient equipment and responsible use of grow equipment. You can’t get much better than a finely tuned, automated greenhouse, so it could definitely happen.

 

CM: From a greenhouse and structural standpoint, what considerations do growers need to make when integrating automated systems?

 

MS: At the end of the day, you’re going to have expensive equipment inside the structure, so you’re going to want a strong, well-built structure that can safely house the equipment. You also want the structure and equipment to match up with how you’re currently doing, but can also be easily scaled together as business grows.

 

Christopher Machnich is a digital marketing manager for GrowSpan Greenhouse Structures (www.GrowSpan.com). He is a cannabis industry enthusiast that loves reading and providing content for the many industry publications. His points of interest are greenhouse and hydroponic production, as well as the cultural and economic impact of cannabis legislation.

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