Advanced system controls take many functions of day to day feed mill operations out of human hands, reducing labor costs and the risk of error.
Automating major processes also helps facilities achieve maximum uptime, productivity and throughput, while promoting consistent product quality and compliance with safety regulations.
Feed & Grain sat down with experts from today’s leading automation system providers to gain insight on the benefits of implementing automation technology.
Our panel of experts is: Alan Berndtson, director of sales, WEM Automation; Ernie Bollinger Jr., president and CEO, WEM Automation; Jay Davis, business development director, Repete; Fred Olson, software development manager, Beta Raven; Tom Shoen, national accounts manager, COMCO.
F&G: What processes are ideally suited for automation?
Olson: Automation should begin with the process that is going to provide the best return on investment, which is usually batching. The rest of the processes — receiving, grinding, pelleting and load-out — fall in line to complement the batching process.
Berndtson and Bollinger: Most feed mills start with batching and/or pelleting because they typically have the quickest payback. However, on an increasing basis, a large percentage of installations are implementing automation in all areas of the mill because of increased regulatory demands for track and trace, quality control measures and manpower reduction.
Davis: Any process in the plant is a good candidate, provided it has in place properly functioning electrical control devices in the field such as modulating valves, meters, solenoids and limit switches. These plant floor devices enable the equipment to interface with, and be controlled electrically by, the control system.
F&G: What equipment is needed to automate a facility?
Shoen: The basic components of an automation system are a programmable logic controller (PLC) and a PC. Other components may be used subject to the customer’s needs. These can include PDAs or smart phones for remote monitoring and control, bar code scanners for data capture and ruggedized notebook computers.
Olson: PLCs have provided the most change in the industry and are usually the next layer under the process workstations. PLCs bring standardization into the control game by controlling an entire plant, a process, or just a discreet slice of a process. PLCs greatly simplify troubleshooting by pinpointing to the technician exactly what inputs are not being made, provided these inputs are an array of sensors.
Davis: Increasingly, customers are gaining access to data — KPIs and so forth — from a remote location via the Web with mobile phones. Customers can use the mobile interface to monitor the operations of the facility and look for opportunities to optimize the facility.
Berndtson and Bollinger: There has been an increase in the use of hand-add prompting and checkweigh stations in combination with and without bar code scanners. Much of this is attributed to the regulatory demands for track and trace. Smart bar code scanners have a place at a mill for warehouse inventory as product is received and/or transferred into production.
F&G: What kind of support do you provide after installation?
Berndtson and Bollinger: Simply put: 24/7. Our control systems are supported via the Internet, and WEM can remotely access all of the critical components such as the PC and PLC at any time, day or night, to resolve any issue.
Davis: Repete provides 24-hour support with an escalation policy to make sure that all of our customers worldwide are supported. Our highest priority is to maintain the availability of our customers’ systems, which is of utmost importance in the feed industry.
Shoen: COMCO provides its customers with 24/7 access to technical support via a toll free number. We can remotely connect in to the customer’s system to quickly troubleshoot issues.
Olson: Beta Raven not only has the technical expertise to perform the work, but also has the stability to support the system over its lifespan.