Automation

Noun (as defined by dictionary.com)

1. the technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum.

2. a mechanical device, operated electronically, that functions automatically, without continuous input from an operator.

So we’ve defined automation.  But what exactly does it mean for a grain business?  Think of it this way:

       Automation at the scale is the foundation for

       Better traffic control, communication and accuracy, and is best accomplished by

       Customizable software and hardware that enables site-specific configurations and build-as-you-need plans.

Automation at the scale involves using PCs and software connected to hardware devices at or near the truck scale.  It significantly reduces operator involvement, stress and mistakes that typically happen at many agricultural scale operations.  Reducing the time each vehicle ties up the scales boosts efficiency.

The Software

Software is the foundation of scale automation.  All the other pieces are built around it.

Scale software is designed to capture data needed by accounting personnel to accurately invoice, bill, make payments, etc.  Before computers, this information was handwritten on paper and referred to as a scale ticket.  Today it is still called a ticket, but the data is captured on the software’s ticket entry screen.

Well-written scale software:

  • Is easy to understand
  • Will have the ability to capture all critical grain related information
  • Will require the operator to gather all needed information before a ticket is allowed to be processed
  • Will include features that make the process as fast as possible

The Devices

Radio Frequency Identification or RFID tags and readers make the electronic connection between the ticket on the PC and the truck in process.  Once that connection is established, additional actions and information can be added without operator intervention.  RFID readers can be either short-range (credit card style) or long-range with fixed tags in the truck or on the trailer.  RFID allows unattended checkout, and prevents stamping of final weight if the ticket is for the wrong vehicle.  Well-designed RFID technology accommodates both regular customers – to prevent entering the same information each time they return – and vehicles and drivers who will only use the facility occasionally.

Typical actions that may happen when an RFID tag is read:

  • A ticket with default information is created
  • The truck is weighed when it is on the scale
  • The ticket is moved to another operational location
  • A message is displayed to the driver
  • Turning on delivery or loading equipment
  • The ticket is completed and a final version is printed

Message Boards

Electronic message boards are placed in strategic locations to communicate with drivers.  Messages appear automatically (without scale operator intervention) when a ticket is started and as information is added.  The driver can see what is being added to his ticket, so any mistakes are caught before the truck leaves that particular station.  Message boards can also be used to display other information, such as receiving hours or current commodity prices.  They can even invite drivers to park the truck and come in for a free cup of coffee.

Typical message board locations and information:

  • Remote probe:  Customer name, commodity, grade factors
  • Inbound scale:  Live weight and captured weight, customer name and grade factors (if probe is on the scale), permission to proceed to the pit, pit assignment
  • Outbound scale:  Live weight and captured weight, process instructions, signature prompts

Remote condensed view of tickets in progress

Remote monitoring of ticket information (Pit Monitor) displays data gathered during the scaling process to employees at pits and loading areas. This allow employees working in these areas to know about trucks in process.  Information can include which commodity they are there to pick up or unload, as well as grade factors and binning assignments.  This minimizes the need for two-way radio communication, which often is misunderstood and needs repeating.  Management can also see the current truck process at a glance and determine whether intervention is needed to reduce a backlog of trucks.

Grading integration

Grading machines are tied in so electronic transmissions are applied directly to scale tickets.  Any manual evaluations still need to be keyed in by the operator.  Automated grading fields may even be locked, so manual changes cannot be made or if they are allowed, the changes can be logged for management verification.

Signature pads

If operational procedure requires a driver’s signature, electronic signature pads allow digitally captured signatures to be applied to scale tickets.  Signature pads can be at the kiosk adjacent to the scale (allowing the driver to sign from the vehicle) or in the office if the location prefers.

Ticket printing

Printing reports is standard, even for non-automated processes.  During automation, it is triggered automatically and generally happens at a kiosk so the driver does not need to leave the vehicle to get preliminary or final documentation.

Truck-on-scale fraud protection

In-ground truck scales can sometimes allow for misaligned trucks and that can affect the accuracy of weights.  If a driver has a tire positioned so it is partially on the scale and partially on the adjacent apron, the weight will be wrong.  An electronic perimeter can sense whether the truck is not aligned properly, and can prevent the wrong weight from being captured.

Plant controls interface

Occasionally data gathered at the scale can be useful to the plant control system.  In a few applications binning information assigned at the scale ticket can be used to control plant routing and starting of equipment. It can also be used to validate that the current truck is the correct vehicle before allowing equipment to start.

Cameras

Still shot cameras can take pictures of trucks and/or license plates when weights are taken or at other points in the process.  Some sites choose to add a camera to the kiosk so a picture of the driver is taken when the vehicle weight is obtained.

Summary

It is best to view Scale Automation as a set of tools.  Depending on your application you may need only one or two.  Other applications may require the entire set.  Either way, the results can be significant.  What is the cost of misunderstood radio communication that results in products being incorrectly binned?   What is the real cost of having to sort out incorrectly applied tickets, missed first weights or cross-weighed trucks?  Automation helps resolve these types of problems and should be considered as you determine whether scale automation is appropriate for your facility.

Learn more about oneWeigh scale automation and the options available.

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