Tuesday 26th May, 2020

Shifting bulk from the stone age to the space age

Measurement technology specialist VEGA is helping Australian companies keep track of their grain levels, even in dusty and noisy environments.

ABHR speaks to John Leadbetter, Managing Director of Vega Australia, to learn how sensors can make work safer, smarter and more efficient.

The history of agriculture is a long and storied one that stretches for thousands of years to the Neolithic era. It was then that societies around the world began moving away from practices of hunting and gathering to farming.

This shift allowed for larger settlements to develop, which grew into villages, then towns, and then cities. The tools used by farmers also began to change, becoming more advanced and productive.

This trend continued into the 21st century. John Leadbetter, Managing Director of Vega Australia, says the continuous development of new technologies, particularly when it comes to the internet of things and automation, has seen the sector jump from the stone age to the space age.

“How we handle grain has dramatically changed over the past few decades. For example, traditionally to check the volume of a silo would require manual dipping,” he says.

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“This would be performed once or twice a day per silo and would involve someone climbing to the top of the structure to do it. When you consider some operations have around 30 odd silos, this would be happening quite often.

“With the advent of workplace health and safety regulations, constant working at heights is now frowned upon, as it puts employees at greater risks, so the industry began to look at ways this could be done safer and better.”

Vega’s response was to design technology that made life easier for bulk material handlers in the form of radar sensors, differential pressure transmitters and level switches. These devices make use of Bluetooth technology, allowing operators to use a smartphone or tablet app to instantly check levels.

Radar technology has been used to collect level management readings since 2004. They work by producing radio waves and detecting the echoes, which are then converted into an electronic signal to be displayed on site or incorporated into a process control or management system.

An example of a radar-based sensor is the VEGAPULS 69, which was the culmination of three years of research and development.

It features an improved dynamic range, giving it the ability to make the returned echo a significantly stronger signal. This allows it to remain locked on for processing.
The level transmitter operates at a frequency of 79 gigahertz, providing an enhanced focusing capacity. This helps reduce the influence of background noise commonly found in complex internal structures such as silos.

Bulk solids with a poor reflective quality can also be measured by the system, due to the addition of new microwave components, allowing the VEGAPULS 69 to detect even the smallest of reflected signals.

Leadbetter says that inventory management has become a critical part of the bulk handling sector and its future.

“At the end of the day, inventory is money. Knowing how much you have and where it is gives you better control of how you distribute your product,” he says.

“Everything comes down to automation, and as the industry moves to more advanced IT systems, the need to know where material is will become even more important.”

He adds that while there has been a push towards an automated industry, there are still some apprehensions.

Price is one of the most common roadblocks for companies, but just as the price of consumer electronics has dropped over the past two decades, so too has the price of certain bulk handling technologies.

Another reason why some companies still shy away from automation is the fear of the unknown. Automation can be scary and seen as something that will end up replacing a person, or something that hasn’t been completely tested yet.

Leadbetter says these perceptions are outdated, as the technology has been thoroughly researched and found to make workplaces safer and more efficient.

“We’re now seeing people in commercial roles get involved with automating systems,” he says. “They can see the advantages straight away.”

“Because they’re the decision maker, anything that helps them embrace change and override potential worries about this tech helps adoption across the broader market.”

Leadbetter explains that listening to its customers and the broader bulk handling market is vital for Vega, as it bases its technological developments around feedback.

“We want to learn what our customers require and how we can make that work for them. It’s crucial we work with the industry as a result,” he says.

“It also gives us a chance to make face to face connections, which are very important. At the end of the day, we’re not a website or e-shop, we’re real people that can understand someone’s need and demonstrate capabilities.