Beyond Better Blending
Today's software can manage and monitor many aspects of retailers' businesses.
March 16, 2011
For years, blending software has played a vital role in getting out the best fertilizer mixes for customers. However, technology has expanded to control a host of other vital functions at the plant and beyond.
"Although there are a few basic blending software programs still out there, the business has truly evolved past that point," says Greg Duhachek, vice president and sales manager at AgWorks, Inc. "With today's fast-paced customer base, retailers have a critical need to know up-to-the-minute inventory positions, grower intentions, and customer account balances to make the critical decisions that spell out the success or failure of their companies."
Such a pace can take a toll on retailers, says Dave Junge, president of Junge Controls. "With all the new chemistries, fungicides, and foliar feeding, it's almost as though we're spraying from weeks before the crop is planted until just weeks before the crop is harvested," he says. "It's not necessarily fatigue from 18-hour days but from caring for that grower's crop for months and months on end."
The good news is that developments in computer software and automation can help.
Steve Swift, vice president of marketing/ag chemicals and fertilizer at Kahler Automation, Inc., says customers look to his firm for computerization of load out equipment, especially at hub facilities. "At the mega plants we're automating everything from the rail received to reclaim equipment to the actual blend towers where the sales take place," he describes. The huge facilities have become two-man operations, with one loader operator and one employee loading trucks.
Automated equipment can now build a semi-load of product in three minutes, says Swift, with buyers simply coming to a facility and punching in their code and the amount ordered for each trailer compartment. "It's very fast and accurate," says Swift.
The systems offer computerized file handling and inventory control. Once a day the owners could see what's available in the plant, thanks to daily e-mail reports — sent in some cases to a Blackberry, if desired. (One newer feature is Kahler's ability to access and trouble-shoot a customer's problem over the Internet.)
More dealers are seeing the need for attention to detail, so they're buying precision systems that robotically run plant processes, says Junge. Junge's business is brisk, with customers ordering a lot of new systems, upgrading old systems, or adding more equipment. He's found perhaps the top 15% of dealers see this kind of precision as mandatory. "More people care about accountability, traceability, and stewardship," he says. "That's what brings them to a high level of automation and efficiency."
Real-Time Inventories, Integration
AGRIS Inc.'s Tim Roberts, senior product manager for the AgroGuide agronomy management system, says recent volatile fertilizer pricing has really highlighted the need for inventory position management. "And with more companies going to a central distribution model to feed application to multiple locations, the issue is growing," he says. In fact, Duhachek calls real-time inventories the "holy grail" of the software business.
Roberts believes the faster a dealer can get application information back to the office to be invoiced, the more up-to-date inventory is. AGRIS has taken a couple of approaches to this problem. One is a scale automation product that feeds actual weights to the back office system in near real-time. Second, the company has enhanced its automated integrations to blending equipment. And third, AGRIS has created a connection to field logistic software that allows the user to send the work order directly to the applicator.
"Once an applicator completes the job, he adds the field conditions to the order and closes it," explains Roberts. "The work order feeds directly back into the back office system wirelessly, reducing the inventory and creating the invoice. Both inventory and accounts receivable are as up-to-date as the latest information received from the applicator."
Duhachek says AgWorks is also currently working on bridging the "final frontier" of real-time business management, linking order information to the applicator machine in near real-time. "AgWorks will be releasing the ability to link orders directly to Raven field computers later this year," he says. The company has offered the Smart Gun — a mobile applicator solution — for years, but is now very excited to be able to share order and machine position information wirelessly.
Mobile access to data is one of the issues addressed in Software Solutions Integrated LLC's new Agvance 5.0 software upgrade. Mobile Sales, one of the product's new modules, provides fast, easy-to-use mobile access to customer data from multiple platforms such as smart phones, tablet computers, laptops, or desktop workstations. The module joins Agvance CRM and Agvance PinPoint in helping retailers gather all kinds of customer data and activity.
Duhachek believes integration of components is probably the biggest requirement retailers are seeking in their plant management system "pieces." He says many software vendors strive to be a "one stop shop," but the reality is most retailers use multiple software vendors in running their businesses. He notes that AgWorks provides integration to several other software packages as well as hardware vendors to offer dealers a high level of flexibility.
Roberts agrees that applications don't have to be from the same vendor, but retailers should be able to expect they will work together "with less effort than the manual process. Attention to workflow is imperative." Bottom line: Integrated applications that reduce the amount of paper needed to process transactions reduce the risk of lost revenue.
Junge's automation products interface with a host of software, such as AgWorks, Agris, and Software Solutions. "We deal with about 15 agronomy/accounting packages, and every year pick up about two or three more software companies we weren't aware of before," he explains.
AGRIS' Roberts says opinions are divided on Internet and mobile applications. "Applications that are portable and sync to a common database offer the advantage of functionality when Internet access is not available, but Internet solutions offer the advantage of real-time updates to information like inventory, pricing, etc.," he explains.
Junge has experienced both sides of this debate firsthand. For instance, he's excited that Internet capabilities have improved so much over the past few years, to where the technology can now be a valuable tool in plant management. "Just two years ago, we would not have put live data on the Internet and allow some unattended loadout systems to use it. At 3 a.m., when a trucker would show up and the Internet was down, he'd have to call and get someone out of bed to get a rig loaded," he says. "We'd have to batch transfer our data. The Internet has almost become good enough now." Junge believes cell phone technology, with the latest 3G and 4G advances, could be an even better solution, a way "to get data out there and stay off people's servers." In fact, private servers have posed problems at times because many retailers do system back-ups in the middle of the night, thinking the entire plant was shut down. The glitch: Load-out trucks can still arrive in the wee hours, only to find a system inaccessible due to back-ups. To solve that issue, Junge has created its own unique web site, separate from retailers' databases for access at any time.
Also ahead is the use of RFID (Radio Frequency Idetification) on semi trucks, says Swift. He says railroads and ports are currently using the technology, and it would be ideal for tracking fertilizer buyer activity. Not only would the tag enable logging a truck when it comes on a secure site, but also when it leaves. All information could be accessed via the Internet.
Swift says customers are asking about RFID, and he estimates it would take about $10,000-$20,000 to get a retailer set up with the hardware and software needed.
In another technology development, Marti Kirsch, director of marketing at E-Markets, notes that some retailers are considering "the cloud" for off-site back-up of data. The requests come particularly in the wake of recent Midwest flooding that washed away firms' papers, files, and computers.
Kirsch also has customers calling about moving their entire business systems to the cloud. They've managed their own IT functions for years and simply don't want to deal with it anymore. "They say it's expensive to maintain as well as hire staff with the skills to handle databases, operating systems, and everything else," explains Kirsch. "They're willing to trust this new technology."
In January, E-Markets announced the latest version of its integrated 16-module agribusiness management system: CINCH Agri-Suite Version 11. Kirsch says users can choose to implement at their main facility and administer CINCH or deploy it in the cloud and leave the administration to E-Markets.