DCS Opens New Markets for Farm Cooperative
EP Editorial Staff | February 16, 2018
Process automation is providing critical production insights and centralized control for a major agricultural terminal operation.
After operating for decades, Nebraska’s Midwest Farmers Cooperative (MFC, midwestfarmers.coop) found itself facing limited opportunities for an expanded global-market reach. With most of its grain transported by truck, the co-op determined the best way to grow the business would be to build a new central-hub terminal with access to major U.S. rail lines. In addition to train service and highway access for inbound trucks, the terminal would also need to be strategically located with respect to MFC’s existing operating facilities.
Having settled on a location that met those requirements, the co-op worked with system integrator Wachter Inc. (wachter.com, Lenexa, KS) to design a fully automated facility based on the scalable PlantPAx distributed control system (DCS) from Rockwell Automation (rockwellautomation.com, Milwaukee). Now up and running, the terminal is helping MFC efficiently move corn and other grain into new markets around the world.
MFC is a full-service cooperative. It brings together 4,100 farmer patrons in Nebraska to negotiate higher prices as a group and reach customers to which individual members might, otherwise, not have immediate access. The co-op operates 28 Nebraska facilities where trucks bring grains to be dried, conditioned, and stored until purchased and transported out.
Previously, only a few of those terminals had access to trains to haul grain to market. Reliance on trucks as the primary means of transit, in turn, limited the co-op’s customer base solely to companies operating in the Midwest. The co-op’s efficiency also was limited given the fact most of its terminals weren’t automated. Consequently, operators needed to manually keep processes moving forward.
An automated greenfield central-hub terminal, MFC reasoned, would not only be key to developing a larger customer base for the co-op’s patrons, it could help keep operating costs low.
Co-op management found a location in Syracuse, in southeastern Nebraska, that met their requirements for rail-line access. Once the land was secured, the project moved forward.
“This was the first time MFC was deploying a centralized DCS in a terminal,” said Daniel Alvarez, automation software systems consultant at Wachter and a lead on the project. “We knew that the PlantPAx modern DCS would be easy to design and deploy quickly, helping to get the facility operating sooner.”
When designing the control system, Wachter leveraged the Rockwell Automation Library of Process Objects. The pre-built, pre-engineered, and tested process objects allowed Wachter to quickly design and deploy the system.
The Rockwell Software Studio 5000 Logix Emulate software application enabled the Wachter team to validate, test, and optimize code without hardware. This reduced design time by about 25%, and allowed the team to gather buy-in from MFC stakeholders and train operators.
With an EtherNet/IP backbone, the modern DCS integrates smoothly with the facility’s new machines, including conveyors and dryer systems, to efficiently monitor and visualize the terminal from inbound to outbound. This comprehensive view enables operators to control all areas of the site through only three workstations located at receiving, weighing, and loadout. Typically, terminals would require multiple operators to manually manage the process.
The new system also smoothly manages enterprise-level monitoring, data storage, and alarming. The system’s connectivity to the enterprise-level monitoring also enables remote access. If an issue arises, Wachter can remotely access the control system for maintenance and troubleshooting, reducing costs and time for both.
MFC’s greenfield terminal has been operating with no major downtime events to date. Its rail-line access allows the co-op to deliver corn and other grains to more national and global markets, at higher profit margins.
The business is realizing a number of specific benefits from its first centralized DCS and fully automated operation. Among them, production moves more quickly and efficiently compared to older terminals. Case in point: The terminal has a capacity of 2.75 million bushels, which could more than double if warranted. The receiving end has the capacity to take in 1,000 bushels every two minutes, and receives an average of 300 trucks each day. The site also reports that remote monitoring reduces downtime and helps save maintenance costs.
One of the biggest benefits, though, may have come as a result of the project’s development process and expedited commissioning. MFC began building the terminal in December 2015. Wachter began performing the upfront engineering and design in March 2016. The PlantPax DCS was deployed by October of that year—and began validating processes less than two weeks later.
“Our operations, management, and leadership teams have varying levels of automation experience, from little or none, to full-on, wholly automated facilities,” said Eric Werth, manager for the MFC Syracuse terminal. “With the PlantPAx system, Wachter helped us go from design to operations at the same location, within a year, letting our patrons reach a bigger customer base faster than expected.”
Bottom line: The Midwest Farmers Cooperative plans to standardize on the PlantPAx system across its facilities as it builds future terminals and upgrades existing ones. EP
Results mentioned in this article are specific to the Midwest Farmers Cooperative’s use of Rockwell Automation products and services in conjunction with other products. Specific results may vary for other users. For more information, visit rockwellautomation.com.