Managing and mixing fertilizer offerings is more challenging than ever these days thanks in part to volatile fertilizer prices and newer, more complex blends. But plant systems and software makers continue to develop solutions for handling inventories, blend functions and data.
Steve Swift of Kahler Automation Corp. says dealers are constantly asking for accuracy, efficiency, documentation capabilities, and inventory control in blender systems. The amount of automation today — in many cases guided by more complex computerization — is simply huge. “We’ve had to stay very, very up to date with all the different blender manufacturers because they all have their own method of designing it,” says Swift.
Also huge: The size of today’s wholesale and retail plants and the number that continue to be built, he says. “We have standard keypad-type equipment, but the plants are so big, they want to computerize.”
Focus On Inventory
One vital facet of today’s plant software is the ability to track inventory. “The need for live access of inventory availability and product costs is more critical than ever in today’s market,” says Judy Warf, communications director with SSI.
Indeed, demands of newer sales and inventory practices continue to give software more to do, including “the capability to manage combined inventories such as company-owned, vendor-consigned, customer-booked, along with the disposition of each as product gets ordered, delivered, and received,” she says.
Swift has found that some retailers don’t even own product until it goes out of the dispensing system — and they want reports daily for billing for what’s consumed. Then, too, wholesalers want to know inventory levels in buildings for replenishing. Automation not just in dispensing or measuring of the products, but in generating these reports, has become common. And this documentation can now be accessed on the Internet, say, via a BlackBerry, Swift says.
In plant, SSI’s Warf says dealers want full-circle integration with their automated blending systems plus the ability to capture sale ticket information from electronic scales. Also in demand are tools that enable multi-site retailers to centralize blend operations for improved logistical efficiencies.
Tim Roberts, senior product manager for the AgroGuide system from Cultura Technologies, says one of the cornerstones of the software — when coupled with the AGRIS agribusiness management system — has been the interconnectivity of blending software with accounting and inventory. “More companies are realizing how important it is to manage prepays and risk positions based on what they are doing in their fertilizer business,” he says. They’re actually looking for more opportunities to connect their fertilizer operations to inventory management.
Kahler is also working on a software package called Streamline that ties all businesses within a multi-faceted operation together — everything from grain through to chemicals, seed and fertilizers — liquid and dry, says Swift. Kahler added a grain facility project manager to its team several months ago to perfect “the last piece of the puzzle” of the package. Streamline makes information on all parts “available at your fingertips,” he says.
Enhancements Complicate Blends
Software packages are now also able to handle additives such as micronutrients, stabilizers, enhancers, and adjuvants throughout the planning and formulation processes, says Warf. Such is the case with SSI’s Agvance system. In addition, with the purchase of Form-U-Share (FUS) in 2010, the company was able to incorporate FUS liquid technologies into the software.
Because of add-on ingredients, staging of blending is much more complex than it used to be, says Swift. For instance, after treating urea with a product such as NutriSphere, the resulting mix needs to dry for a time afterward, then the rest of the blend is brought in. “Our company takes care of those items literally seamlessly for dealers,” he says. “All they have to do is go to the computer and create the blend, then the computer does all the work. They don’t have to sit and think about the procedure.”
Cultura’s Roberts notes that as blender equipment has become more sophisticated in handling more complex blends, so programmers have enhanced AgroGuide’s ability to transmit this kind of special product information. Looking ahead, he sees more ongoing cooperation between equipment manufacturers, micronutrient/stabilizer makers and software companies to make sure all related information is properly managed within the software. “We are working with manufacturers to improve the efficiency of the hand-off of information to the equipment as well as the return of the actual weights from the equipment to the software,” he explains.
Internet communication is widely used at 24/7 liquid terminals — building projects that continue to be “real hot” for Kahler. Products coming off ships and going into railcars can be tracked on the Internet. “How much we’ve dispensed and what dealer it’s going to is being recorded,” Swift says.
Inventory tracking capability is the primary reason why it makes sense to use technology to manage a business, says Greg Duhachek, president of AgWorks. “But that only gets a software company in the door at a retailer,” he says. “As companies continue to increase in size and look for ways to gain efficiencies, connectivity — whether it be a blend plant controller, an in-cab controller or another piece of software — is often the ‘deciding’ factor.”
Duhachek says connectivity allows ag businesses to “connect all the dots” and makes their lives easier. Buyers need to make sure a software vendor is working for them, making their lives easier by connecting to other critical business partners/software vendors that are core to their business, he says.
Software capabilities are extending all the way to customers’ fields. Warf says blend jobs are being sent directly to the applicator in the field via wireless technologies. SSI is currently working with Raven’s Slingshot system to transmit this kind of information, and SSI will continue to expand its use of wireless and cloud technologies to bring more efficiency to the process, Warf adds.
Marti Kirsch, director of marketing with E-markets, says dealers are asking about software solutions that are available where the agronomist is. “As long as there is Internet connectivity, cloud-based solutions can provide information to the user that is current and relevant to help customers make timely decisions,” she says.
Kirsch says cloud-based solutions offer companies a number of benefits. For instance, retail staff can make changes quickly, whether that’s adding or changing products, prices, employees or locations.