This article is part 1 of 2 based on a presentation by Naeem Zafar, co-founder and CEO, TeleSense, San Jose, CA (833-472-4600), given Aug. 8 at the Grain Elevator and Processing Society Exchange in Columbus, OH.
As everyone in the grain industry knows, grain can spoil during storage or transportation due to biological activity that causes mold or damage. To mitigate grain spoilage, reduce quality degradation, reduce energy costs, and improve worker safety, grain companies should consider the latest technologies, such as the Internet of Things, real-time remote monitoring, and artificial intelligence.
The grain industry has been feeding the world for more than 100 years. While it continues to fulfill that function, digitization efforts can enable it to operate more efficiently. Take Walmart for example: The minute you leave the store with the pair of shoes you just bought, the factory in China gets the signal to make another pair. This is the type of supply chain optimization that the grain industry should strive to achieve. Walmart’s massive investment in infrastructure has made it one of the largest companies in the world, with $480 billion in revenue in 2020.
While the initial cost of digitization is high, the continuous development of new technology solutions has helped decrease costs over time. Advanced tools designed to target inefficiencies in grain storage and transportation are released every year. These advancements fall into one of three stages of the digitization process:
1. Data collection and integration with systems. These solutions are aimed at reducing the manual effort and risk involved in data collection. For example, if carbon dioxide monitoring sensors are installed at a storage facility, there is no longer a need for workers to visit all the bins with a carbon dioxide monitor.
2. Generation of insights and alerts. After establishing ways to collect data, there is a need to generate insights to interpret the raw data. Rather than feed you a bunch of numbers, analytical and visualization solutions can use the data to draw insights. For example, along with giving you the carbon dioxide level of your bin on a certain day, advanced solutions also can tell you that the carbon dioxide has been trending up by 10% every few weeks.
3. Prediction of outcomes and prescriptive actions. The next step is your system telling you what to do based on the insights it has generated. In post-harvest grain management, an example of this would be software, which based on the grain conditions and predicted weather conditions, tells you to run your fans for a certain amount of time.
Areas for Digitization
These are four potential areas for digitization in the post-harvest grain supply chain:
• Quality management – reduction of post-harvest spoilage due to mold, pests, or excessive moisture.
• Safety improvement – reduction of incidents and risk associated with grain storage and transportation.
• Profit maximization – timing of when to sell based on predicted grain quality and favorable transportation costs.
• Traceability – better visibility across the supply chain to spot the source of problems.
(Editor’s note: Profit maximization and traceability will be covered in Part 2 in the November/December issue.)
Digitizing Quality Management
According to 2019 data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 8% of the grains, cereals, and pulses grown in North America and Europe are lost to spoilage during post-harvest storage or processing. Even the best facilities in the world have 1-2% spoilage, meaning there still is room for improvement. Solutions for post-harvest quality management can be further categorized under three buckets:
1. Continuous monitoring.
2. Advanced aeration controllers.
3. Fumigation assistance.
Continuous monitoring. These systems can track real-time grain conditions such as temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide and generate alerts. This helps the grower/ elevator manager identify problems quicker and take corrective action. They also promote better decision-making about when to aerate, how to manage hot spots, and when to sell grain. The best monitoring systems are truly wireless, meaning they are not tied to a specific computer at a facility, but c instead they send data to the cloud. This allows anyone with a phone or computer to access the system, no matter where they are located.
Battery-powered sensors. For grain piles or flat storage buildings, there are battery-powered, wireless sensors that can be stuck into the grain mass (see image to the left). These sensors also can be used to monitor grain during transportation, via barges or railcars. Cellular connectivity enables the system to generate real-time alerts while in transit.
Advanced aeration controller. These systems compare ambient weather data with grain conditions inside the bin to fully automate fan operation. These controllers are superior to standard aeration controllers that rely solely on weather conditions and do not account for internal grain conditions.
Fumigation assistance. Gas concentration monitors assist with fumigation management by monitoring the concentration of various toxic gases (e.g., phosphine, methyl bromide) involved.
Lack of proper monitoring is the key reason for fumigation failure. Continuous monitoring helps determine if there is leakage prior to fumigation. Without proper sealing, the gas will leak before reaching a high enough concentration to kill all insects.
Digitizing Safety Improvement
According to data from Purdue University, in 2020 there were 64 confined-space related incidents (e.g., grain entrapments, asphyxiations, equipment entanglements) in the United States, which led to 32 deaths.
With remote monitoring solutions in place, many of these incidents could have been prevented. A key aspect of safety improvement is reducing the need for workers to enter bins. A good example of a technology which can assist with this is a remote inspection robot that moves across stored grain to level, inspect, and even break up the crust.
Wireless hazard monitoring. The key purpose of hazard monitoring is to reduce the risk of grain dust explosion. Any explosion needs an ignition source. Common ignition sources at an elevator include belt slipping, high bearing temperature, or belt misalignment. To detect safety hazards, facilities use speed switches, misalignment sensors, and bearing temperature sensors. Along with a variety of sensors for data collection, advanced systems also include an interface (i.e., mobile app/website/software) to provide regular alerts and easy data access.
Tucker Scharfenberg, managing editor