It's the age of the Internet and the computer, the age of information and technology. For this year's North American Technology Outlook, World Grain surveyed the companies profiled to see how these trends were seeping into the traditional grain handling and processing industries.
The power and possibilities of current and future technology is undeniable, even for this industry, which is often slow to change its proven ways. Internet applications, genetically modified organisms and transgenic grains are some of the most important factors driving technological advances.
MAKING ADJUSTMENTS. Technology doesn't just come in the form of a new piece of equipment or computer application; it often results from a necessary adjustment made to accommodate other changing circumstances.
For instance, basic milling technology hasn't changed in years. Processes have been adjusted to be more efficient and easier to operate in order to accommodate marketplace demands, changes within labor markets and other factors.
Albert Soder, group vice-president, milling, for Buhler Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., wonders about another adjustment that may change milling technology in the future. "A significant change [in processing technology] could only be expected if the wheat varieties would change fundamentally; for instance, if a round kernel without crease could replace the present varieties," he said. "Maybe even the wide availability of white wheat could change the technology eventually."
Charles G. Riley, president and chief executive officer of Riley Equipment, Inc., Vincennes, Indiana, U.S., said an increase in specialty grains will cause future adjustments. "Specialty grains drive a different type of demand: smaller capacities, damage-free handling and total clean-out, to name a few," he said.
Reacting to and integrating various developments from other fields helps keep supplier companies current. For instance, Entoleter, Inc., based in Hamden, Connecticut, U.S., stays up-to-date on the progression of technology in other industries. "The science of metallurgy is coming out with stronger and cheaper metals and alloys all the time," according to Todd Gardner, sales manager. "Entoleter wants to make sure it has access to these new metals to make sure our equipment is the best on the market."
CompuWeigh Corp., Cheshire, Connecticut, U.S., is adjusting to changes in the grain transportation industry. "Most of our grain elevator customers are being affected by the rail companies' decision that they do not want to be in the business of providing free storage space for their customers and therefore are now highly focused on fast turnaround of the rail cars (15 hours or less)," said Robin Sax, CompuWeigh's chief executive officer.
As a result, the company developed technologies to help speed up loadout operation. "With the ability to automatically read the radio frequency rail tags on the side of each car and our ability to calculate the optimum weight to load out the cars, we can eliminate all the clerical work that was originally associated with loading cars," Mr. Sax said.
"The use of powerful PCs and really useful software allows an operator to control the whole facility from one screen," he noted. "The savings are tremendous, and the rail companies are giving the elevators U.S.$10,000 for every unit train loaded."
THE GMO ISSUE. Many adjustments are being made within the industry to accommodate increasing amounts of genetically modified grains and the debates surrounding them.
Genetic ID, Fairfield, Iowa, U.S., developed the first tests to detect GMOs in raw grains and processed foods and programs to certify products as non-GMO. Jeffrey Smith, vice-president of marketing and communications for Genetic ID, said the GMO issue is having a huge impact on the milling and grain industries.
"Last fall, an estimated 8% of (U.S.) grain elevators segregated grains," he said. "This year that number will grow to an estimated 20% to 25%, according to a survey by Pioneer Hi-Bred. The survey also indicated that over 14% of elevators will test grains for GMOs. GMO testing technologies will continue to become more sensitive, accurate, reliable, faster and more cost-effective."
Lyle Burbach, vice-president of sales and marketing for Behlen International Ag Systems, Columbus, Nebraska, U.S., also recognizes the importance of GMOs. "Genetic modifications of grain will be one of, if not the, most important technological issues for the future," Mr. Burbach said. "The implications for the milling and grain handling industries are many, from preserving identity to marketing, pricing and handling. As customers become more educated on GMO issues, the marketplace will need to adjust, store and track these grains."
According to Cassie Eigenmann Pierson, marketing business unit manager of analytical instrumentation for Dickey-john Corp., Auburn, Illinois, U.S, "GMO grain and the related sciences are the most important and pressing technological concern, as we see it."
She added, "Tighter analysis technologies will be required to determine not only GMO presence, but also specific percentages and other customer-driven requirements," she said.
WONDROUS WWW. When talking about current technology, the Internet can't be ignored. Business-to-business (B2B) web sites are becoming more common, and the industry is just learning how to integrate the Internet into its daily business to make operations more efficient.
Charles Riley of Riley Equipment said, "The Internet is certainly the wave of the future. Not getting on will probably guarantee getting capsized."
He added, "We operate in a global marketplace. We need to provide as much information to help our customers solve their problems and satisfy their needs for information. Different time zones mean different hours of operation; the Internet will allow us to serve our customers 24 hours a day."
Riley is in the process of updating its web site. "Our customers are more sophisticated every year," Mr. Riley said. "To deny them access to information is a step in the wrong direction."
Mike Spillum, sales and marketing manager for Hi Roller, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S., also recognizes the Internet's growth within the industry. "The grain companies are already setting up web sites to communicate with producers," he said. "Manufacturers are also setting up web sites to communicate to the grain companies."
Hi Roller has made product information available through its web site and includes a questionnaire for quotation requests. "However, we are not ready to give up the personal contact with the end user," Mr. Spillum said. "I still feel you need the personal interaction to fully understand your customer's needs."
Entoleter's Todd Gardner said customers are increasingly using the Internet to obtain product information and quotes as a means to browse without consulting a salesman. "Entoleter just sold its first piece of equipment 100% through the Internet/e-mail," Mr. Gardner said. "This may look good on the surface, but we have no way of knowing if the proper equipment was ordered or how to help the customer with potential processing problems because the customer did not want to talk with us."
Still, the Internet is a "fact of life," according to Albert Soder of Buhler. "A certain amount of our business will be done via Internet," he said. "At this stage, it is very useful to improve communication and instant information transfer. Thanks to the Internet and digital cameras, questions and problems can be discussed instantly at various places in the world. Most of our worldwide offices already have access on-line for all customer related services, starting from technical information to spare parts."
CompuWeigh is utilizing the Internet to perform operational and management tasks. "Some of our customer's senior executives are responsible for more than one elevator," said Robin Sax. "Using the Internet, we are able to provide these executives with information that spans multiple facilities. For example, they can see their overall inventory exposure by commodity and grade. We are using the Internet to provide maintenance managers with real-time information on multiple facilities. This allows them to monitor equipment utilization, safety items like bearing temperatures and remotely schedule preventative maintenance."
CompuWeigh has also incorporated computerized marketing and sales information systems. "When we speak to a customer, we know exactly who called them last, when that call was made and what was discussed," Mr. Sax said. "We can instantly pull up any document we have sent to or received from that customer. This ensures that we can talk intelligently to our customers and provide them with the information they need."
The global range of the Internet intrigues Cassie Eigenmann Pierson with Dickey-john Corp. "The Internet is bringing together technologies from all over the globe, all at a moments notice," she said. "Technical information, processes and procedures that have not been readily available to many nations are now right on screen."
Alicia Hupp, president of Sweet Manufacturing, Springfield, Ohio, U.S., is witness to the benefits of such Internet exposure. "Someone called from Tanzania and placed an order immediately after looking at the site information," Ms. Hupp explained. "The Internet saves time and money, while opening up business opportunities with people around the globe."
R&D NECESSITY. With all these changes, research and development is required to stay competitive. Many companies have either a R&D department or dedicate time and money to the cause.
Buhler has a "significant" R&D department, according to Mr. Soder. "In order to help our customers to be competitive and to improve the efficiency of their plants as well as the quality of their products supplied to their customers, we must continuously improve our equipment and processes," he said.
Genetic ID's research department tracks every new commercialized GM crop variety, said Jeffrey Smith. This allows the company "to develop DNA-based tests to detect these varieties and better serve the needs of customers," he added.
Through its research, Genetic ID developed a test to prevent false positive and false negative tests results as well as a non-GMO certification that integrates GMO testing with an identity-preserved system. The company also has developed real-time quantitative methods and tests that identify GM crop varieties not approved in specific countries to help protect importers and exporters from risks of refused shipments, fines and criminal penalties if unapproved varieties are delivered. Genetic ID can also custom-design certification programs and sampling plans for its customers.
Mike Spillum with Hi Roller said that while Hi Roller's equipment itself is not in the technology field, the company does have a R&D department to enhance its equipment, much of which is operated via technology. For instance, Hi Roller recently developed a totally enclosed, movable tripper for enclosed galleries that is operated via a PLC from a remote location. "A person is no longer needed on the bin deck floor to move the tripper," Mr. Spillum said.
CompuWeigh does not have a separate R&D department, but still invests a lot of time and money on research and development, according to Robin Sax.
"We believe that new products should be developed by personnel who are in constant touch with the customer," he said. "For this reason, our electrical and software engineers spend at least 25% of their time on designing new products."
Since last year, the company has released several software products that diagnose problems with bulkweighing scales and read rail car and truck numbers automatically.