Software: Connectivity Reaches Beyond Fertilizer Blending

Ag Retailer at ComputerThe fertilizer plant control and automation business is brisk — in fact, Steve Swift at Kahler Automation, would go further. “I’ve never seen it this intense for this many years consecutively,” he notes. And no wonder. Not only are strong crop prices spurring purchases of all things ag, technology recent innovations in software and systems are truly breakthroughs. The developments extend beyond the plant, to even growers’ fields and “The Cloud.”

One example? Cultura Technologies has released a mobile version of its iView online customer account access portal —  which ag retailers use to provide their customers 24/7 access to their account information including sales orders, payments, statements, and other transactional data.

Judy Warf, communications director with SSI/Agvance, reports that dealers are looking for an integrated software system that can blend the product, dispatch delivery and communicate information to in-the-field technologies. She believes that using such a system, retailers can create new products to deliver increased efficiency and profit.

The new enhancement from SSI that allows this kind of connectivity is called Agvance Mobile Job Manager. It gives users the ability to receive blend jobs from a dispatcher as well as access and edit blend ticket data while in the field. The Mobile Job Manager application will be available for Android systems this spring and for IOS systems this summer.

And in a development project with SST, Cultura will soon be piloting a work order integration module that links SST Summit and Cultura’s AgroGuide formulation and blending software. This will allow recommendations from SST to create a formulation directly in AgroGuide which can then be blended, shipped and invoiced without having to manually key in information. Tim Roberts, senior product manager for AgroGuide, reports the integration will be generally available this summer.

Kahler’s new plant system, called Streamline, ties all businesses within a multi-faceted operation together — everything from grain through to chemicals, seed and fertilizers. So far, demand for the grain side of the package has totally taken off and needed attention. Swift’s team is currently developing the applications for dry and liquid fertilizer plants, using the same software to monitor RFID on trucks, weighing equipment and more, as for grain.

Manufacturers are also modifying their blending programs to handle the growing variety of products, such as micronutrients, that need to go in mixes these days. Roberts points out seed has become more prevalent in the formulation process, and the range of additives to enhance product effectiveness is expanding. He admits such items have brought new challenges since they don’t meet the traditional N-P-K nutrient paradigm.

Inventory A Key Concern

Beyond the blending of nutrients, a key part of many systems now is inventory tracking. AgOS Operations is the module in AgWorks’ extensive software that handles live inventory tracking. It manages inventory positions across salesmen, locations and regions — including product moving in anhydrous tanks, custom application tenders and chemical shuttles. One part of this module, called Mix Plant Manager, connects orders to a retailer’s automated blend controls to eliminate double entry of application information. Other facets of the AgOS system cover Mapping, Grower Access, Planning and Compliance.

On the liquid side, Kahler has a Web application — accessible by smartphone — for tank level monitoring so buyers can see how much product at a given site is available, then time purchase decisions accordingly. Information can also be made available via e-mail.

Following Containers, Customers

Tracking software is targeting more than fertilizer inventories. For instance, because of new EPA regulations governing the re-use of minibulks, retailers have faced a challenge handling the containers, and a number of companies have stepped up to offer solutions. Kahler Automation developed the Container Tracking application to log valuable data on individual units keyed to their bar codes. Swift explains that dealers simply scan the code to call up a container’s history — such as whether it’s been inspected, what chemical is needed for refill, etc.

“I think dealers thought tracking was a good thing but have struggled with it. Now they have to jump on it,” he says.

AgWorks also brought its new container tracking product to the market in 2012. Called AgTank Tracker, “it’s a Web-based offering with a mobile handheld that has the ‘letter of the law’ built right in,” says Greg Duhachek, president.

In August 2011, Cultura Technologies added the Durable Goods Tracking option to the AGRIS system, which allows for managing and tracking durable goods, including chemical and seed containers as well as equipment such as anhydrous tanks and application equipment, to improve regulatory compliance and inventory control.

The move to increased connectivity is happening at other, new levels. SSI’s Warf says it’s exciting to see the industry itself come together to promote the sharing of data. “Organizations such as AgGateway are opening the door to collaborative efforts within a wide variety of companies and industry segments which strengthens the ability to share data within the vertical market,” she describes. “In order for a blending software program to be fully integrated, we must leverage the work being done within these organizations and make the benefits available to our customers.”

Throughout the industry more and more organizations (from grower to retailer to supplier) are requiring access to data, which makes a fully integrated software system more vital to operations, says Warf.

Some of that data is being maintained in The Cloud, notes Cultura’s Roberts. In fact, he’s been surprised at the growing adoption of cloud-based applications. “Not too long ago, the idea of allowing customers data to get to the Internet was viewed as too great a risk,” he says. “Now it’s required in many organizations.”

Marti Kirsch, director of marketing with E-markets, emphasizes the importance of that customer information. “Our buyers are looking for a competitive advantage,” she says, and one way her company provides that edge is by giving retailers a complete view of their customer – including their buying habits — using E-Markets’ Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution. Retailers can present those customers with thoughtful, meaningful solutions that have excellent return on investment.

“Our buyers are using information to drive more sales and build strong, long-lasting relationships with their customers,” she explains.

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