On Saturday, July 16, Jonathan Pedersen, CEO of Monrovia, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Cultivate’22 about how the nursery has implemented automation.

Monrovia has growing facilities at its Azusa, California headquarters, as well as Visalia, California, Dayton, Oregon, Granby, Connecticut, and Cairo, Georgia. Monrovia grows a wide variety of plants across those locations (more than 4,000), which makes automation more difficult. Many machines aren’t flexible enough to do what they do for different sizes or types of plants, Pedersen observes. To complicate matters further, much of today’s automation equipment comes from Europe, where the size and scale of nurseries is not the same as in the U.S., he adds.

So before investing a ton of time and resources into automation equipment, Monrovia analyzes if it will be worth it.

“If you can’t measure it, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it,” Pedersen said. “If you can’t measure the return, why are you spending the money?”

Like growing plants, trialing and testing is a big part of Monrovia’s approach to automation. A data-driven approach is crucial to this. There are many tasks you can automate, Pedersen said, but you have to decide which ones will be worth the investment.

“We want to keep our craftsmen on tasks where they add value,” he said, “not bent over spacing plants. Is the job best for a human to do? If not, how can we automate it?”

Define the process, measure it, analyze, improve, then control. Every step is critical, but Pedersen said the control is the hardest because it’s difficult to fight inertia.

“Human nature is to go back to what you know, and quite often we’ll update a process, we’ll prove it’s a better process and more efficient, but if you don’t stick with it, people’s habits will go back to what they were,” he said.

Before you get started with automation, you should find or develop a ROI model to measure your return on investment. Monrovia has a simple one that helps with project prioritization.

Here’s the formula Monrovia uses: ROI = [(Financial value – project cost) / Project cost] x 100

Year 3 is most often the time when the project breaks even and pays for itself, Pedersen said. Other important questions to ask: Can you measure the results and effect on the business? Will it require other process changes either up or down stream? If it does, how much?

Also, be realistic about the time and resources necessary to implement the automation you’re considering.

“It isn’t just money,” Pedersen said.

He suggests doubling your original estimate of how long it will take to get the new process running smoothly.

Monrovia almost always makes adjustments to the equipment once it’s working in the fields. One particular change that Pedersen said is hugely beneficial is adding hour meters to machines to determine how much they’re being used. This helps measure if a new machine is providing the ROI they hoped it would.

One of the most important lessons learned from automation at Monrovia is that it’s important for your employees to the “why” behind automation, not just the “how.” They need to feel comfortable with the equipment and understand that you’re improving their jobs, not eliminating them.

“If they think they’re being replaced, they’re not going to want to use your shiny new equipment,” Pedersen said.

Start with some easy projects to get a few wins under your belt. Your employees will start to buy in, and hopefully they will become a source of new automation ideas. Expect some failures, as well. Sometimes you’ll buy an expensive piece of equipment and end up parking it in a field for a year while you figure out how to make it work with your existing operation. But Pedersen implores growers to not give up when you experience a setback. Automation done well can improve plant quality through uniformity and make worker’s jobs better by minimizing repetitive strain injuries.