Travel restrictions do not only affect the workers in the greenhouses, but also the suppliers. How to conduct service work when you can't enter a country? What are the effects on shipping costs? And how do you get your machine up and running when you're thousands of kilometers away?
The Canadian technicians of Bellpark Horticulture offer horticultural automation solutions, serving growers in Canada and the United States. Currently they will no longer be allowed to travel internationally to conduct service or installation work that has already been scheduled.
"This is not for a lack of trying, as all of our technicians have been and still are ready and willing to travel in spite of the COVID-19 virus, however our medical and emergency insurance will no longer cover us in the event of illness or injury", explains Graeme Dergousoff with Bellpark Horticulture.
The situation is similar for countries all over the world. Also the Dutch company MJ-Tech has to deal with travel limitations. They supply high-pressure fog systems all over the world - and many projects are in the North American market. Since warmer weather is coming, the fog systems will be in full use for the next half year. That means a lot of systems are now starting up after months of not being used, and they might need maintenance, and perhaps parts, too. How to deal with that when you cannot travel?
For companies within the USA, business seems to continue as normal. "At this point, we do not have any restrictions on travel in North America and the company is not putting any in place, although we are monitoring the rapidly-evolving situation closely", says Jay Honeycutt with Javo. "We are also reaching out to clients who have installations scheduled to ensure they are comfortable with having our staff onsite and that they are not in a shutdown."
Since Bellpark Horticulture is a complete solutions provider, there is a varying degree of impact on their business based on their service lines. "When it comes to service calls, installation, and repairs, we’re facing the same restrictions that all North American companies are facing with regards to interprovincial, interstate, and international travel. We are adhering to the global and national travel advisory councils to determine what we can and cannot do. For the time being we have postponed our upcoming service calls, installations, and repairs and will reschedule them at our earliest availability," they say.
"With remote service & support, there's no impact due to the outbreak. We are always available for our customers. Where appropriate, we will pull from our team of field service technicians to assist with remote support. Even in the event of office closures, remote service will still be provided." Also Bellpark is investigating options to offer video consultation to remotely troubleshoot technical issues.
For MJ-Tech, all their machines are accessible via remote service. That was always a big help since you can look at what’s wrong directly, instead of e-mailing descriptions back and forth. And now with the COVID-19 virus, it’s the only option for service in a lot of countries, explains Jurnjan van den Bremer with MJ-Tech. "We've applied this not for this situation, but to help our clients faster. If you grow in California or Canada, you don't want to wait for a Dutchie to get your system up and running again - you want to be helped fast."
For their machines, it’s possible to simply send a screenshot via WhatsApp and the Dutch team can see what problem they face - something the company invested in over the last years. “One big difference with SARS in 2003 is that all our customers these days work with mobile phones incl. a camera and apps like WhatsApp & Skype, a picture or screenshot is made in seconds to trigger us and to see what problem they face. Knowing the unit’s unique remote service number, service engineers can establish the remote connection and view what is going on, they can see the same thing the user sees on the screen out there. In that way we can help 'over the shoulder' to adjust things”, says Jurnjan. "Much faster than e-mailing and describing what you see or asking the user to adjust in his own system screen."
The MJ Tech high pressure fog installation itself can be contacted remote...
..so a technician can see what's going on there immediately
"For new machines, the installation can be a challenge - but fortunately we currently have no ongoing projects that are limited because of the restrictions. We're hoping to be able to travel within a month again to pick up the projects. For the future, and if travel limitations remain, we would look at our partners to help us out - but we have to see how the situation evolves."
"If it becomes necessary, we have the ability to work with clients remotely. This may be through a VPN connection for some newer machines, or it may be through Facetime, Skype and other video conferencing services to help our technical team walk the client through troubleshooting and repairs", says Jay. "In addition, in some areas of North America, we have local, certified technicians who can go onsite and help our clients."
When it comes to supplying parts, there's no impact due to COVID-19. "Shipping has been impacted, as in the global panic transportation costs have increased. We will continue to monitor on a daily basis and quote reasonable shipping costs to get product to our customers in a cost-effective manner”, says Graeme.
"Our factories are still operating at full capacity and there is no interruption in our production supply chain," he continues. "International shipping via container has been in higher demand but has to still be reliable, therefore prices have gone up to reflect the limited supply of container space. We will continue to offer this as our preferred mode of transportation and are monitoring the situation closely to identify when things will stabilize."
International shipping via air has been greatly restricted and therefore for Bellpark Horticulture all pending quotes have been cancelled. "And we are seeing 200% to 1000% increases in costs. All customers will be given every option to get their equipment to their door, and we will arrive for the installation as early as we are able."
For MJ-Tech, the parts supply is not a large issue, luckily they got their shipments from risk countries a while ago. "For total projects, shipping costs are only a smaller part of our costs, and we've seemed to dodge the bullet here," says Jurnjan. "For now it's following the safety guidelines when it comes to the disease and see if we can help our customers in any other way. With the new season starting and higher temperatures coming up, we want to make sure growers can make the most of their fog system."
"So far, we have been able to minimize the impact of shipping costs on our clients. In truth, we saw a sharper rise in shipping costs two years ago," Jay adds.
Whereas the flower market in Europe has collapsed, the effects in the US seem limited for now. "At this point, our clients are just starting to see impacts as the spring season for consumers - who are large buyers of annuals and perennials - is just underway or about to get underway. While we do expect an impact to the nursery and greenhouse market, we do not know the extent of it at this time in the North American market", says Jay. "It is simply too early to tell if this is a spring blip or if it becomes a more long-term malaise. However, many growers who survived the 2008 crash have put themselves in strong positions, in terms of both cash and market position. These we think will be able to weather the storm and may even find room for expansion in the medium to long term."
"Throughout the next few months, we’ll keep an eye on a couple of things, including sales at big box retailers such as Home Depot, Lowes and Wal-Mart and we’ll also watch housing starts closely since this is tied to the new-landscape market and a big driver for greenhouse and nursery production. In the coming weeks and months, those two things will tell us where we are and where our growers will be. In the short term at least, we are seeing no disruption in our supply chain, so we are able to provide our growers with parts and machines normally. We will continue to work closely with our valued clients for the duration of the current situation to ensure the health and safety of Javo USA, Inc staff and that of our valued clients."
"We remain committed to every project we sell and are well prepared and equipped to handle the influx of service and installation volume it faces once travel restrictions have been lifted," Graeme adds as well. "We look forward to continuing our relationship with each and every one of our customers, and look forward to a bright future as the world comes together to end this pandemic."
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