Real-time data keeps grain on the move

By Sue Cant, The Age

AWB Ltd collected 180,000 tonnes of wheat from farmers at Charlton, northern Victoria, in 2002. Last year, in just four days, it collected the same volume, taking it to more than 1.8 million tonnes for 2003.

To handle the dramatic growth after the recovery from the drought, the company, formerly the Australian Wheat Board, set up new IT systems for data collection using Microsoft’s .NET platform.

Five years ago, the grain storage centres of the big wheat marketer each had their own server to ensure a robust communication system for critical data about the quality and volume of grain.

Dust and electrical storms had also prevented two-way satellite systems from helping the company improve its communications.

“One of the difficulties we have with the bush is that communication is very expensive and not very reliable,” says AWB’s general manager for information technology services, Murray Ross.

“The cost of hardware became very expensive. We decided the costs of the operations were not coming down quickly enough and the internet and web-based interfaces were prolific.” Since moving to the .NET platform, AWB has put the 16 servers to better use and can now monitor its grain volume in real-time.

While Mr Ross heard stories about rivals literally losing grain by failing to accurately record the peak loads in the aftermath of the drought, AWB is able to automatically capture information about the grain from analysing machines linked in real-time to a central portal. With the need to move grain from ports, farms and storage centres, AWB wants the fl exibility of object-oriented programming, which uses data structures to create reusable objects.

“It also gave us the opportunity to put in completely different infrastructure and we felt the technology had been proven,” Mr Ross says. Instead of having to transmit overnight updates to growers and buyers, a real-time portal can be accessed for information.

When trucks arrive with a load of grain, it is put into analysers that weigh it and test it for moisture and protein. The data is automatically captured and fed into the portal and central database.

Under the previous system, players in the commodity market would wait for daily reports or overnight transmission of information. Now, details are logged into the system in under four minutes.

This also allows AWB to assess the state of the market and make judgements about necessary trading in futures markets to offset supply and demand. “We wanted to make sure testing and weighing equipment had a realtime feed,” Mr Ross says.

In the past, operators would manually key in data from the analysers, increasing the likelihood of error. “The quicker we can get it in a central place, the better the return for the growers.

The timeliness of the data is paramount. It’s a significant error reduction,” Mr Ross says. Grainflow manager Matt Watt says the system helps with management of a largely casual workforce and standardised working practices. “We can tweak the workforce,” he says. “We would have labour sitting around. Now we can very quickly see if we need more people at a site.”

It also helps AWB to keep track of the quality of grain, the trends in grain management and if equipment needs alterations.