Can you manage your grain elevator from your phone?

14 April 202011 min reading

“The goal of doing an optimal management over the available stored grain is not a trivial issue in the globalized 21st century market. Lots of applications can do one thing or the other. But how easy it is to have everything in one application? What does it take to gather data and see them on your screen? What else can you do with these data and how can you control your facility remotely and efficiently? For an elevator manager to benefit from what the IoT has to offer, an intuitive app is needed. No matter how many or how important data and estimations are produced by a system, if it fails to convey the right messages at the right moment to its end user it starts losing its value.”

Antonis Tzounis, MSc Field Ops Manager Centaur Analytics, Inc.

Decision making for a grain manager is not a simple task as it combines challenges related to grain quality metrics and safe storage time, market price and demand, business strategy, losses elimination, and more. Achieving a good balance between revenue making (i.e. selling at the right moment), storage and conditioning costs and minimal or zero spoilage requires having a good insight in your stored grain.

Managing only one site with grain bins, warehouses and/or elevators is not easy as it requires frequent sampling and analysis, and, inventory monitoring in order to have an updated overview of the available quantities and the quality status of stored crops. Managing multiple facilities, hundreds of miles from each other, is an even greater challenge.

The evolution of interconnected telemetry/sensing devices (aka IoT), telecommunications and cloud computing offer several mature solutions that can help a manager take optimal decision, based on her/his current and future business goals. Logistics management is done in an efficient and sustainable manner. The available solutions on grain storage and management are divided in two main categories: a) solutions coming from integrators combining generic products, and, frequently, come as an add-on to an existing infrastructure. b) solutions coming from vendors specializing on grain management and quality assurance. Those solutions are usually backed with grain-specific knowledge and

The question still the same: Can you manage your grain through your phone, tablet or any other internet-enabled device? Figure 1. IoT Architecture Layers.

TECHNOLOGY INFRASTRUCTURE & LAYERING The goal of doing an optimal management over the available stored grain is not a trivial issue in the globalized 21st century market. Lots of applications can do one thing or the other. But how easy it is to have everything in one application? What does it take to gather data and see them on your screen? What else can you do with these data and how can you control your facility remotely and efficiently? Several solutions out there realize the transition from the traditional low-end elevator to the next-gen elevator which is a part of a larger ecosystem with measurable inputs and outputs as well as environmental footprint and financial efficiency. So, the ability to change goals dynamically and satisfy more than one constraint is vital. The Internet of Things paradigm highly regarded as the next industrial revolution is following a layered structure (Figure 1)(Tzounis et al. 2017). Let’s see how the IoT realizes the elevator of the future, today.

Layer 1: Perception Layer Irrelevant of how technologically evolved a solution is today or in the future, everything starts with the actual storage environment, both inside and outside the storage facility, the actual grain condition and its responses to the weather fluctuations, and, the quantity of the stored grain inside the elevator. All those factors need to be monitored accurately, in an undisrupted manner using industrial-grade, robust equipment. Besides the sensing and/or measuring of several factors, at this layer (Layer 1) we have the actuators which do the conditioning of the grain and all the other task related to the elevator management, such as filling and emptying the facility.

Picture 1. (a,b) Wireless sensors monitoring temperature, moisture and CO2 inside a silo wall. Soon the bin will get full of product and the sensors will transmit all those conditions from inside the grain. Picture 2. A technician installing a wireless sensor in 5 minutes.

Business-wise, as silos and elevators are a long-term investment, retrofitting of the sensors and actuators is a serious matter. The ability to upgrade the existing elevators, and, make them dependable again has a potential of saving grain companies and mills multiple millions that otherwise would have to invest on making new, modern storage facilities. This becomes quite important for small or medium-sized, family-owned business as well. Therefore, besides robustness, retrofitting features is an important characteristic to take into consideration when looking for new technologies in grain monitoring and handling.

Wireless connectivity among the devices (sensors and actuators) in Level 1, is something that helps a lot, as it requires no wiring costs (material and labor). This brings us to the next layer which is the Network Layer, or Layer 2.

Picture 3. Centaur wireless gateway and smart sensors.

Layer 2: Network Layer Many networking technologies are already spread across various sectors starting from industrial facilities up to home appliances. However, transmitting from inside the grain mass is very challenging for most of the existing technologies, including Wifi, and, Bluetooth. Therefore, a solution aiming to transmit from inside confined spaces should transmit in such a way that can penetrate through large masses (such as grain) and make use of metal and other surfaces to propagate the signals. Grain-specific wireless sensors usually make use of sub-1Ghz technologies to transmit their data. Getting the signal out of the grain and the elevator is the most challenging task. However, even if a system can do it successfully, the use of wireless repeaters to ensure good connectivity may be an advisable solution.

Besides local networking solutions that ensure data collection from the sensors installed inside the storage facilities, internet connectivity has to be provided so that the systems can send those data streams to online infrastructures for being safely stored but, above all analyzed further. Combing large amounts of data coming from different sources (aka “Big Data”) gives us the ability to go beyond graphical representation of data streams. The matching of data patterns and combinations, the ability to compare them automatically with models and well-evaluated scientific knowledge gives us much better insights, the ability to predict and generate automated signals, which in the case of an interconnected facility enable optimal automated control (e.g. optimal grain aeration).

Figure 2. As it is clearly seen, a large portion of tasks in a real IoT solution take place on the cloud. Figure 3. Combination of CO2 and Temperature patterns identified by AI as spoilage event.

Layer 3: Middleware Layer A large portion of what makes IoT paradigm so special for today’s operations happens at this layer. “IoT” is a very popular term, and, many vendors like to use it a lot, even for solutions that are not really IoT. At the same time customers are more familiarized with standalone monitoring systems that can be installed and report some data or, in the best case, create some graphs and warnings based on simple empirical rules, and, a smartphone app. However, this is nothing more than a traditional wireless sensor network (WSN) for monitoring, not IoT.

It is a fact that vendors do not want to undertake the task of building users’ trust towards a new technology or do not want to invest on a real IoT solution yet. At the same time customers to some extend refuse to get out of their comfort zone and familiarize with something new. This situation suits everybody but at the same time does not help to introduce actual IoT solutions to elevators management, preventing all the advantages that those solutions bring together.

Two are the most important features of the IoT. One, it is literally an “internet of things” so much of the information produced in the Layer 1 (sensors/actuators) and transferred through Layer 2 (networking) is actually consumed by things and not humans like the internet as we know it. The things can be devices like other sensors or actuators. Two, IoT heavily relies on cloud computing. Super-computers that are cheap to use as much as you need them but too expensive to maintain in-house, have enough power to run real time analysis on the available data, do intensive computations and run complex algorithms in order to produce predictions, assumptions, warnings and optimal control signals. Cloud infrastructure offers access from any device, which is a flexibility valuable for people that must work long hours outside their office, such as elevator managers, grain operations managers, grain traders and millers.

Figure 4. All major tasks related to elevator management in one single application.

Grain conditioning which has so far been conducted using fixed set points and rules or even combination of conditions and slightly more complicated logic. The same task can now be done based on grain condition estimation an analysis and data fusion coming from sensors inside the product, scientific knowledge on safe storage time (Kaleta and Grnicki 2013; Navarro and Noyes 2002), and, simulations estimating the conditions throughout the whole grain mass, based on the local weather conditions. Adding the simulations of the aeration effect based on the fans specs and local climate, offers a highly accurate aeration scheduling tool that is also able to operate successfully under different goals set by the user.

Layer 4: Application Layer For an elevator manager to benefit from what the IoT has to offer, an intuitive app is needed. No matter how many or how important data and estimations are produced by a system, if it fails to convey the right messages at the right moment to its end user it starts losing its value. The application must be created for the user, based on her/his actual needs, professional, educational and social background. It is not uncommon for technological solutions to fail just because they were made as if engineers or tech-savvy users would use them.

Another characteristic of the end-users in agri-business is that they spend a significant amount of their time outside in the fields. This increases the need of a mobile-friendly application to fully interact with the platform. There are vendors who offer stripped-down versions of their cloud-based solutions, with only a limited number of features available through a smartphone or a tablet. However, nothing it impossible, as soon as a vendor invest the appropriate time and resources to design and fit all the information and controls in the palm of the end-user’s hand, and, this is something users really appreciate.

Figure 5. Managing multiple locations, any time from any place has never been easier, not until now with Centaur cloud app.

Layer 5: Business Layer The last layer of IoT is business layer, because at the end of the day, what matters is that grain elevator becomes more efficient and contribute further towards business success. A tool that offers a complete solution including sensors, actuators, collection and forwarding of data, data analytics, automated grain conditioning and all this through an internet-based app is ideal.

It becomes even more attractive when users realize that the ROI is reasonable given the benefits that this system brings that include: • Flexibility of data access, • New managing capabilities (e.g. quality/SST-based decisions), • Automated optimal aeration based on user-set goals (e.g. prolong storage time or save energy), • Inventory monitoring measured in bushels (accuracy 2-3%) and as a fill-level percentage, • Early warnings and grain-specific analytics (i.e. how the weather in the region can affect the grain stored in facility XYZ), • Avoid revenue losses due to spoilage. The last step in this supply chain solution is the automated interconnection of the actual quantity of stored grain maintained at certain quality with the actual market through marketplaces.

Going back to the initial question: Can you manage your grain elevator from your phone? The answer is yes, today you can do it better than ever! Welcome to the new era of grain management!

References Kaleta, A., Grnicki, K.: Csriteria of Determination of Safe Grain Storage Time – A Review. In: Advances in Agrophysical Research. InTech (2013) Navarro, S., Noyes, R.T. (Ronald T.: The mechanics and physics of modern grain aeration management. CRC Press (2002) Tzounis, A., Katsoulas, N., Bartzanas, T., Kittas, C.: Internet of Things in agriculture, recent advances and future challenges. Biosyst. Eng. 164, (2017). doi:10.1016/j.biosystemseng.2017.09.007

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