Blending Gets Better

Kahler Automation control system

Last year’s drop in fertilizer use could have been detrimental to software companies; instead, dealers took the opportunity to make their businesses better.

“Our dealers continue to look for ways to lower operating costs and be more efficient,” explains Judy Warf, communications coordinator, Software Solutions Integrated (SSI).

Organizations have grown due to mergers and acquisitions, Warf says, and to effectively manage that growth, retailers need the ability to integrate their blending operation into the sales process and business flow.

“Accessing real-time inventories and accounts receivable, connecting with automated blenders, and implementing logistic tools to improve communications between dispatchers and applicators is giving dealers more opportunities than ever to work more efficiently, improve ROI, and maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace,” Warf says.

When agronomy sales did not follow normal trends last year, some ag retailers were caught with high-priced inventory, says Keith Bangasser, product development manager, E-Markets. “Ag retailers did not have adequate business information systems to match sales projections to inventory purchases,” he explains, describing an increased need for “improved agronomy sales management and up-to-the-minute inventory information.”

Dave Junge, president, Junge Control, says: “When inputs are so expensive, it’s more important to be accurate. Customers that think that way have a desire to be agronomically perfect. Others don’t think that way; they think, ‘We’re losing money, so we’re not going to spend any money.’

“So many people don’t exercise until they have the heart attack,” he continues, adding that last year, more people thought: “‘Something’s gone wrong, we’re losing a little money — let’s do something to fix this.'”

Automating Perfection

Software plays many roles beyond ensuring the accuracy of mixing and blending. Part of the adjustment is keeping up with changing industry needs.

“Software has played an integral part for multi-site fertilizer dealers looking for a more centralized approach to their blending operations,” says Warf, explaining that such dealers are purchasing a higher percentage of their seasonal needs in advance, resulting in longer lead times and the centralization of inventories, facilities, and equipment. “The ability to blend and distribute higher volumes of product to a larger territory requires software to effectively track sales and margins of inter-company activity along with blending for third-party companies.”

Bangasser agrees. “Blending software linked to ‘across the company’ order systems are critical for centralized blend plant operations,” he says. “These systems create efficiencies, increase accuracy, and allow for reports to be generated detailing the transactions.”

Recordkeeping is vital for keeping track of who did what, when, and where. Managing such details by hand increases the margin for error, and the possibility of losing important documents is too risky.

“If we made some fertilizer or chemicals for a truck, there’s a record that goes along with it that we save in case something’s wrong,” says Junge. “Or we export it back to an accounting system. Those records are very important.”

It’s also safer for employees, Junge adds. “There’s less shrink; they make fewer mistakes – they just make more money, because they’re better,” he says. “If something’s wrong in a certain spot, we know it from the yield monitors. If they forgot to put nitrogen in one of the loads of fertilizer, that’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. We’re beginning to see so much uniformity in our yields as farmers that a mistake will be found agronomically. Your inputs had better be right.”

“Blending software must link to both ag retail business software and crop planning software,” says Clyde Martin, president, AgWorks. “In the future, blend orders will be generated directly from crop plans, [which] will flow directly to order cues for blending and application at centralized facilities.”

Getting Smarter

Not only do software systems make fertilizer businesses more accurate, but they make work easier, as well. Junge Control’s touch screens, for example, have increased ease of use so almost anyone can use them.

“I’d have thought pretty much everyone on the planet would have been mouse and keyboard savvy by now, but they’re not,” says Junge. “That touchscreen — well, everyone can run an ATM.”

According to Warf, the next generation of Agvance will leverage the latest mobile technologies and the power of the Internet. Retailers are using sophisticated automated equipment used to blend both dry and liquid products.

“Most of these systems can communicate with the blending software so that work orders entered in the office are automatically sent to the blender and the adjusted quantities sent back for accurate inventory updates and invoicing,” he says. “Inefficient, smaller plants can be replaced with those that service larger areas and maximize the use of custom application equipment.”

New SSI software, Agvance 5.0, is due out later this year “with a new look and host of new features throughout all of the integrated products,” Warf says. “There will also be several new modules introduced that will integrate with our popular Agvance Blending and Dispatch modules.”

AgWorks’ newest offering is a hand-tool that “completes the ‘order-blend-delivery-application’ cycle,” Martin says. “AgWorks Smart Guns record pertinent information about timing, placement, products, applicators, drivers, and regulatory compliance activities. This data is linked back to the order system recording ‘Done Data’ and creating application logbooks.”

Investing In Accuracy

It seems self-evident that fertilizer robots that make transactions easier, increase accuracy, and help to maintain precise records are becoming not just helpful, but necessary.

According to Junge: “We had one customer with a $70,000 machine who added two of something to make it a $100,000 machine. He said that one mistake they could make was worth more than the $30,000 the second computer would cost. They’re spending money to become more efficient, more accurate, and more professional.”

This trend is becoming a market need. Steve Swift, product manager, fertilizer and chemical equipment division, Kahler Automation says: “Software is the key to any large facility. It allows a high level of daily production, documentation, and inventory control. The demand for plant equipment has remained at a very high level. Companies with long-term plans are still investing in plant facilities. There has been a big trend to get the product to the field in a more efficient manner than in previous years.”

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