Automation Innovation

February 6, 2011 05:35 AM
Automation Innovation

Eric Blad checks his grain drying system morning, noon and night during harvest. That doesn’t mean he’s pulling all-nighters floating between the dump pit and the wet holding bin. A computer and smartphone monitor allow him to manage operations nonstop from nearly anywhere in the world.

Better yet, Blad designed the automated computer software program in a manner that immediately alerts him if a grain leg plugs or a motor overloads and pinpoints where the problem is located.

"I get a text within five seconds of an incident," says Blad, who farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans near South Bend, Ind. "Almost every fix that I can do without being there has been added into my program. Sometimes, the system even reroutes around the problem."

Blad’s system hinges on personal computer-based automation software that connects to six control boxes by the grain bins and augers. The computer is connected to the Internet via a constant Wi-Fi signal to ensure texts are immediately sent.

The system also archives information from dozens of sensors and switches to make troubleshooting and predicting problems easier.

"I have used very reliable components and have everything on uninterruptable power supplies, which minimizes random electrical failure from poor electrical power coming in," Blad explains.

The system saved him hundreds of dollars in labor costs alone this past season, he says.

"I never want to have five guys in semis and combines sitting and waiting on me to get the system fixed," he explains. "They’re able to keep harvesting up to the limits of the wet bin and dryer capacity."

During two months of scheduled drying in 2010, the system was down only eight hours. "Five of those were spent waiting on a couple of metal fittings and a new electric motor," Blad notes.

Because the system is rarely down, Blad figures it enables him to dry grain an additional 18 hours per week during the critical harvest period. That also means he can combine and dry crops when they are in prime condition. He estimates that benefit saves him nearly $65,000 in any given year.

"By running the system at optimum capacity," he says, "I have less grain breakage and no overdrying or underdrying, so I get maximum grain quality. That means I can store a higher quality product for a longer period of time, and I’ll have better sales opportunities for that grain."

Blad stores 185,000 bu. of grain in bins and another 70,000 bu. in flat storage on his farm each year.

Along with quality benefits, the automation system lends a safety aspect to the grain-drying process. Blad rarely needs to climb bin ladders to locate problems since the system is designed to pinpoint and tell him where they are located.

"It all adds up to peace of mind," he says. "That’s priceless."

Just Fix It. Blad likes to think about the technology problems he encounters day-to-day on the farm and how he can find a solution to fix them. That was the case when he began the process of automating his grain bin system.

"I wanted to unload my two wet bins at different rates and times to create a more consistent moisture level of the corn entering the dryer," Blad remembers.

Finding a solution to that problem led to more automation ideas.

"I now know how long my augers run," he says. "Amp-wise, I can tell you how hard they have run."

In fact, there’s not much he can’t track. "I have a computer page that displays how many hours the bin fans have run and when the augers turned on and off," Blad says. "That’s all good information to know when you have to troubleshoot a problem."

Blad encourages farmers who are interested in automating an existing drying system to first identify an issue within the system they want to address. "If you have a main problem, attack that problem—that’s what will drive you to fix something," he contends.

In the process, Blad suggests making a written plan of what they want to accomplish. "A written plan gives you something concrete to refer to and update," he says. "Look at other farmers’ systems, and make notes on what you like about what you see and what you’d like to improve."

Good Resources Help. Blad regularly references MidWest Plan Services (MWPS), headquartered at Iowa State University. Two of his favorites are MWPS booklet No. 13, Grain Drying, Handling
and Storage ($15); and MWPS booklet No. 29, Dry Grain Aeration Systems Design ($25).

Blad saves money by buying used copies of these and other resource books from Amazon, the online book and technology distributor.

Hire Good Help. Blad depends on the expertise of local electrician John Wiebe to provide wiring, electronic and software support. Wiebe owns a firm called Automated Innovations, which provides electronic solutions to businesses, including farms, in the South Bend area.

There are several ways farmers can switch to automation without tying up lots of resources. "It’s pretty economical to have automation turn augers on and off," he says.

Blad figures basic automation functions can be accomplished for about $2,000, depending on how much of the work you do yourself. If a farmer has the basic electrical infrastructure in place, Wiebe says he can wire a system for between $10,000 and $20,000.

Wiebe especially likes to install a communication cable, which looks like a basic phone line, from a central control station to the drying equipment. This step eliminates the need for running multiple wires to multiple locations.

"Simple components, such as moisture and humidity sensors, can help you maintain ideal moisture and heat in grain bins," he says.

The dollars it takes to automate a grain system are put in perspective when you consider potential losses that can happen if a bin overheats.

Blad realizes not everyone has ready access to a professional with Wiebe’s expertise. He advises talking with local electric companies and unions to find someone with automation capabilities.

As for his own grain bin system, Blad’s next move is to add more probes to his bins to track temperature levels in each one. He also wants a more streamlined mobile Web interface on his smartphone.

"The one I have now is too detailed for use on a small phone screen," he says, with a laugh. "I guess I’ll just have to make one."

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