Start with a decades-long adoption of operations automation, add un-matched dedication to quality control, and sprinkle with a one-of-a-kind mobile maintenance tracking system, and you have a recipe for success. This is the formula at work behind one of the nation’s largest co-ops, Richmond, VA-based Southern States Cooperative.
Southern States’ Park City, KY, feed mill was built in 1977 with cutting-edge (for the time) automation in its receiving, batching and milling. The facility updated these processes over the years to keep up with increased demand and recently added rugged PDAs to the company’s computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) to streamline its record-keeping capabilities.
Their maintenance system recently received accolades from the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), who along with Feed & Grain magazine and AgGateway, honored Southern States with the 2012 IT Innovation Award. In its second year, this prestigious competition honors feed and food companies that exlempify creative application of new technology-driven solutions.
Ahead of the curve
More than 30 years ago Southern States built two locations with automation technology at Park City and its “sister” plant in Winchester, KY. Bill Monroe, manager of feed operations, says the feed division has always been an early adopter of up-and-coming technology.
“We were way ahead of the curve with plant automation,” says Monroe. “When I first started at the Winchester plant, I batched feed from the keyboard, loaded from the keyboard, received from the keyboard, and all the processes in between. I didn’t know of any other facilities at the time operating like we were. Although it wasn’t always as reliable as it is today, our leadership had the foresight to see what an advantage this technology could be.”
The plant underwent an automation face lift in 1996 when the legacy Martin-Decker control system, service and spare parts were no longer available.
The co-op selected Interstates Control Systems (ICSI) of Sioux Center, IA, as its automation provider to upgrade the processes the legacy system handled and expanded into new operations such as pelleting, pressed block and poured block lines, and micro-ingredient weighing.
The PLC- (programmable logic controller) based system allows the automation processes to grow and change with the company, and will last for decades.
“Since 1996 at this location, we’ve replaced computers, updated our operating system and installed new software, yet we’ve done very little to the PLC network because it’s still supported by the company who owns the hardware platform, Rockwell Automation [Allen Bradley],” Monroe states.
One of the co-op’s upgrades was a bar code hand-add system, implemented in 2005 and now employed in all eight feed mills.
“We weigh by hand the medications, premixes and vitamins, and integrate the micro scaling operation with a bar coding feature that ensures the integrity of each batch,” says Monroe.
The ICSI hand-add system continues to prove itself as an asset in inventory control, quality assurance and food safety.
Hand-add system operators first scan a formula’s Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) — a code used to identify unique items — containing information on what quantities of vitamins or medications it requires. Then he scans the SKU on the ingredient container and scoops the medication onto a scale. The system only accepts it if the correct ingredient SKU is scanned and the weight compares within roughly 1/100 pound of the formula’s specification.
“Previously, you could read the scale incorrectly and add too much or too little to a formula, but there’s no way of doing that now,” recalls Gary Huddleston, plant manager. “And the bar code scanning feature eliminates the risk of adding the wrong ingredient entirely. It won’t let you dump the wrong hand-add into a batch.”
The elimination of mistakes has vastly improved the company’s medications inventory management.