7 things to consider when adding new technology

Experts say it’s important to start small and involve your crews when adding new technology. (Photo: Yellowstone Landscape)
Experts say it’s important to start small and involve your crews when adding new technology. (Photo: Yellowstone Landscape)
Experts say it’s important to start small and involve your crews when adding new technology. (Photo: Yellowstone Landscape)
Experts say it’s important to start small and involve your crews when adding new technology. (Photo: Yellowstone Landscape)

Before adding a new piece of technology — be that a robotic mower, new software or even battery-powered equipment — you should think about where you want your business to be in the next five years, says Todd Reinhart.

Your answer will help inform the path to go down, says Reinhart, co-owner of Reinhart Landscaping & Snow, a primarily commercial design/build, maintenance and snow and ice removal service provider in Bloomington, Ill.

While some operations may want to keep the status quo, others might look to innovations to help improve efficiencies. Here are some things to keep in mind to effectively integrate a new piece of technology.

1. Know your numbers

Reinhart says a critical first step for a business owner considering adding new technology is to know your company’s numbers. You and your team should know how to build a sales campaign and a bid or how to take a service to the market. Access to this information typically comes from a robust software program.

“Without one encompassing system like Aspire or Boss, you’re never going to get there,” he says. “You think, there are too many variables and things to watch. How do you do all those things without a system to keep all that data in? It’s impossible.”

Reinhart says his operation hopes to slash labor costs by 80 to 90 percent with the 20 robotic mowers the company has already deployed. He says understanding these costs and savings helps his team to accurately bid on projects where crews will deploy robotic mowers.

“We can charge the same as what it costs the client now — because our labor and fuel are the things we can’t control a lot of right now,” he says. “Equipment costs I can control, because if I buy it today, I know what those costs are for the next three years.”

2. Assess your clients

Joel Honeyman, vice president of global innovation with Doosan Bobcat, says the first step a company considering adding autonomous mowers should take is to assess its clients and properties to see what makes sense for automation.

“So, there are a lot of tasks yet that we’re going to need humans for, that you’re going to need precision for,” he says. “There are other aspects of the job that would be well suited for automation. It’s picking the job that can be successful that is the key. Pick the task or the job that can more easily accept this newer technology.”

3. Start small

Honeyman says it’s important to think of autonomous technology and manual mowers as “both/and.”

“I don’t think it’s a jump all the way in,” he says. “We’re going to use operators and manual mowers or manual equipment for a very long time. However, there are applications for these autonomous ones. Maybe it’s one or two pieces of equipment to start with.”

He says autonomous technology installed on ride-on mowers offer manual modes where the equipment offers operators options.

“It doesn’t have to be autonomous all the time,” he says. “They can invest in the technology and then slowly build up and pick the jobs to be successful with that technology.”

Steve Pearce, general manager for Sebert Landscaping, primarily commercial maintenance, snow removal, sustainable landscapes, design/build and enhancements operation in Bartlett, Ill., says a few dedicated crew members started to work with RC Mowers autonomous mowers before deploying them throughout the company.

“We took the approach of learning how to do this rather than shoving it into our operations,” he says. “We want to understand how it works and how it goes.”

4. Dispel rumors

It’s easy for crews to assume autonomous mowers will take their jobs. That’s why it’s so important to make employees feel invested in the mower, says Jason Klear, business development and branch manager for Yellowstone Landscape in Findlay, Ohio.

Located in the Northwest part of the state, Klear says his commercial maintenance operation is at the heart of the Ohio State and Michigan rivalry. As such, a senior production manager named the branch’s Greenzie mower “Wolverine,” a nod to Michigan’s mascot.

“We pretty much sell it to the crew as it’s another crew member. It’s not somebody taking your job, but it’s somebody that’s helping you. A two-person crew can now do a three-person crew size job.”

Klear says he also makes sure crews understand overtime and workloads will not change with this mower. Crews can now focus on preventive maintenance and enhancements.

Pearce says with any new technology, he and his team ensure it will work before deploying it through rigorous vetting. So, crews know a lot of thought and time went into the decision before rolling it out.

“We do have a very huge responsibility to not give our staff things that are not going to work or that are inferior,” Pearce says. “That is our responsibility to vet the product the appropriate way.”

5. Get in front of your clients

Reinhart says operations should take a multifaceted approach to educate clients about new technology, especially autonomous mowers. Reinhart Landscaping & Snow set up demo days for clients and prospects.

“You have to show them how it can be sustainable and be safe, reduce sound and interruptions, and how it’s a much higher level of service because it helps them not have tall grass,” he says.

With more than 20 autonomous mowers in operation, he says client field days help his company pick up work.

“What it has done is the clients that either view landscape maintenance as a commodity or ones that we haven’t been able to get into for years, they’re calling us. And we’ve created kind of a little buzz around it.”

Sebert Landscape also uses field days to market services to clients, Pearce says.

“There’s a wow factor,” he says. “We’re catching people’s attention. Clients see that you’re forward-thinking.”

6. Measure appropriately

Greenzie helps Yellowstone track the autonomous acres and manual acres mowed, which is shared in a weekly call with branch managers. Klear shares his branch’s usage with his team to ensure crews’ efficiency.

“It’s a big investment,” he says. “If you don’t use the technology, it could move you backward on the P&L.”

Klear says he’s working with his team to compare apples to apples with the labor rate of crews with autonomous mowers and those using manual mowers and then integrating those figures into estimating jobs.

7. Are you going to lead or wait?

The biggest advice Pearce has for other landscape business owners is to act, not wait.

“You have to be willing to take a chance,” Pearce says. “You have to have an open mind. You have to include your staff in the idea. And ultimately, you’ve got to take chances. That’s the way you get to where you need to go.”

Reinhart likens this dilemma to needing a new computer. Do you wait, knowing new technology will continually come, or do you buy what you need now and continue to add technology as your operation needs it?

“It’s going to be a billion-dollar industry very, very soon,” he says of automation. “The people that are waiting and sitting on the sidelines are going to get clobbered by their competition that’s adopting this faster.”

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