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Don’t get left behind by technology

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(Photo: koya79/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)
(Photo: koya79/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)
(Photo: koya79/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)
(Photo: koya79/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

As robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) assimilate further into everyday life, they conjure cautionary sci-fi tales, like HAL 9000 (“What are you doing, Dave?”) in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

However, this technology can reduce costs (especially labor-related), increase revenue, streamline operations, maximize profit and provide a more meaningful and consistent customer experience.

Great potential

Among commercial service-based industries, nearly a quarter (24 percent) incorporated AI into their processes, with 80 percent of those businesses experiencing performance improvements, according to a 2023 study of more than 1,000 commercial service contractors around the U.S. conducted on behalf of ServiceTitan by Thrive Analytics. The research also found that early adopters see positive results with service bookings (40 percent), invoicing (38 percent), dispatching (32 percent) and customer experience (27 percent).

Contractors need not look too far as numerous AI programs are readily available now — for free or for a modest fee — and hold great potential for small business owners. Take, for example:

AI chatbots for your website that interact with customers and offer solutions to their problems in real time. In addition to recommending services to clients, the bots track and report on customers’ areas of interest as they navigate your website.

Personal AI assistants that manage customer outreach, book meetings and target prospects who are most likely to use your commercial service.

Data-driven copywriting tools that create effective content for ads, email campaigns and social media posts. As a bonus, AI gives users feedback on what content or campaigns work best with customers.

Artificial intelligence vs. autonomous solutions

It’s important to remember that AI and robotics are not synonymous terms and that while robots may utilize AI, not all AI are robots. And, the landscape industry historically has been a slow adopter of new technologies.

“There is this mentality that we’ve done things this way our whole lives, and we’ve been successful at it, so why change?” says Michael Mayberry, customer success lead at Scythe Robotics.

AI and software

Specific to the green industry, one of the most logical points to begin to find AI integration is landscape design software. The advantages could be revolutionary for contractors.

“AI is the new buzzword out there, and it seems it is where design technology is heading,” says Eric Gilbey, product marketing manager for landscape industries at Vectorworks. “I suspect it will start with automated (design) processes and eventually become part of the overall design workflow.”

The creative process is unique to the human component of a landscape concept shared between designers and clients, says David Sloan, sales manager at Drafix Software. AI, on the other hand, must rely on the design principles it’s programmed to follow.

“AI will only be as good as the people feeding it information. In this case, (AI) must be adept in landscaping principles and plant zones,” he says. “(AI) doesn’t know what the designer knows or carries with it that creative element humans possess. It can’t design a landscape if it doesn’t know what (that final design) needs to be.”

Advantages of robotics

While AI technology addresses automating administrative duties, robotics represents a solution for the landscape industry’s primary business challenge — labor.

The real fear is that robots — or automation — will steal jobs, says Joe Langton, president of the Langton Group and CEO of Automated Outdoor Solutions (AOS). This Chicago-based retailer provides robotic mowing equipment to lawn care and landscaping professionals.

“The fact is that we’re pretty short-staffed as an industry as it is,” he says. “And we need between 20 and 30 percent more people in our ops. Robots are meeting those needs. Will humans lose jobs? No. Humans will do something different.”

Mayberry agrees that adding robots will allow landscape contractors to control labor costs by stabilizing revenue. A robotic mower is a predictable cost for the contractor, whereas human labor is unpredictable due to experience, skill set, productivity, salaries, training demands and more.

“So, if you have 10 robots, then you know exactly what your costs are going to be all year for those 10 robots,” he says, “And you can build that into your bids and potentially lower your price because you don’t have to worry about employee turnover. We’re talking anywhere from 150 percent to 300 percent turnover at the crew member level every year.”

In the field, robots provide contractors with a predictable acreage per-hour, per-week cost, allowing crews to refocus on customer value-added tasks.

“That’s why robotics is so exciting because now we can take those crews and focus them on tasks the clients really care about, like making sure the front flower beds are weeded and maintained, making sure shrubbery is neat, and actually doing integrated pest management (IPM) and check on plant health,” Mayberry says.

These things affect profitability. Mowing realizes about a 5 percent average profit margin, Langton says. Automation will require fewer on-site workers and multiple tasks managed concurrently. As a result, he predicts margins could increase to 25 percent. Additionally, robotic mowers operate in a seven-day service window regardless of weather conditions, vacations and holidays, sick time or other factors, Langton says. He estimates it would only take one person to monitor the activities of 100 robotic mowers in the field.

Future applications

So, as the landscape industry begins to use AI and robots to address mowing, it can apply this technology to other parts of the business.

Currently, a landscape company may blanket spray for weeds or feed with an application from a broadcast spreader. AI-equipped machines can learn to identify signs of weed pressure or nutritional deficiencies in a lawn environment and apply to only those areas in need instead of the entire property. Mayberry says this leads to more efficient use of resources and a more favorable environmental impact, which customers are more sensitive to when choosing their provider.

“We can use AI to look at weather patterns to understand and predict when the right time is to apply a certain chemical to have the greatest effect on certain weed or insect pressure,” he says.

Insiders like Langton and Mayberry say this is the direction the landscape industry is heading, and contractors must prepare now to adopt AI and robotic solutions to remain viable and competitive.

“These will simply be the tools the modern landscape contractor uses,” Langton says. “Selling robotic services will be no different than selling a normal
service contract.”

Mayberry says it’s only a matter of time.

“Anybody thinking that robotics are not going to take hold in the (landscape) industry is fooling themselves,” he adds. “They’re going to be left behind, or they’re going to get gobbled up by other companies that are more aware of how to use this technology successfully.”

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