April 01, 1996
by Teresa Acklin
Advanced electronics and computer systems improve grain handling systems, safety and profitability.
It seems computer technology is present everywhere these days, from the information highway to the scenic byway; indeed, passenger automobiles built today routinely contain more sophisticated computer components than the mainframes of 20 years ago.
The grain handling industry has not been left behind during this revolution. The monitoring equipment of today from scales to temperature gauges to level indicators increasingly incorporates advanced electronics and can be connected to master computer control systems.
Leading-edge electronics technology has made monitoring equipment more reliable and easier to use, according to Electro-Sensors, Inc., Minnetonka, Minnesota, U.S. The company's speed monitoring systems are an example of the new technology at work; switches now are tied in to programmable logic controllers to change shaft speeds if preset levels are reached, and counters can count almost any process unit, including boxes, pallets or trailers.
The new generation of monitoring equipment is geared to problem prevention. Systems have been designed to record and analyze the operation of equipment and even parts to assess conditions and predict routine maintenance needs well before problems actually develop. Continuous readouts now track trends, enabling early adjustments to avoid breakdowns.
Another example of how technology has changed grain handling operations can be seen in weighing systems. To improve its existing wheat receiving system, General Mills, Inc., turned to Comptrol Computer Control, Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, for a legal-for-trade bulk scale at its Los Angeles facility. Based on the performance of previously installed Comptrol in-process scales in the mill, the decision to go with Comptrol for the receiving application was academic, according to Fred Steinke, General Mills' elevator superintendent. “I can't imagine how anybody could buy another scale,” he said.
Ron Copley, plant manager, said the Bulkamatic fully met General Mills' expectations. It delivers a legal weighing accuracy of plus or minus 0.1% and has not fallen out of calibration since commissioning. With elevator sanitation requirements becoming more stringent, the Bulkamatic's sanitary design and operation also is an attractive feature.
The Bulkamatic's compact design made installation into the existing building easier, and Comptrol's engineering ensured that no major modifications were required. The customizable invoice and weigh ticket, approval from the U.S. standards agency and legal certification for the U.S. State of California also give General Mills the ability to better serve the needs of its customers.
Computers also have made possible systems designed to automate, monitor and control individual grain handling functions as well as complete facilities. For example, the Rolfes Company, Earth City, Missouri, U.S., recently introduced the “Data Highway,” designed on a building block approach that enables gradual expansion of the system.
Individual modules are available for such functions as automation of scales, bin boards and distributors; for interface with accounting systems, grading equipment and level monitors; and for monitoring grain temperature, bearing/belt misalignment and motion and speed. Additional modules integrate the equipment and automate the plant.
The Data Highway does not depend on a central control point, but uses a variety of hardware and software products and assigns tasks to each. If any module fails, only that feature is disabled, and if a problem surfaces, the information is put on the “Data Highway” and is distributed to the appropriate stations.
Portable monitoring equipment also has gone high-tech. The Rolfes Co. also recently introduced a hand-held grain temperature reading instrument that stores up to 24,000 temperature readings for heat trend analysis. The unit can be programmed to reflect storage configurations and vessel numbers and plugs into a printer for reporting purposes.
High-tech systems not only have changed the way information is gathered, they have changed the way it is presented.
Previously, monitoring systems generated reams of data in a numeric format, which requires a “bean counter” mind to decipher. Subtle increases in temperature, often a telltale indicator of spoilage, are difficult to detect by such means. As a result, the cost of lost quality is all but impossible to measure unless rampant spoilage has occurred.
This situation was the impetus for the development by OPIsystems, Inc., Calgary, Alberta, Canada, of the OPI 2000 Monitoring Alarm Control System for grain storage management. OPI 2000 links sensing elements such as temperature cables or even “whole” components such as grain dryers to a remote interface such as a dedicated controller or personal computer.
This linkage takes place through field devices called Remote Terminal Units placed throughout the storage environment. The units collect inputs and potentially output control signals to equipment such as aeration fans.
The RTU network is linked by a single four-conductor cable that delivers power and facilitates a two-way flow of information through the system. This leading edge technology can help managers store the highest quality grain at target moisture and can reduce fan operation, resulting in an improved grain storage bottom line.