Streamlining Truck Scale Operations, the Ethanol Plant's Cash Register

By Lee Harris | July 01, 2006
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Truck scale operations are the "cash register" of any facility receiving grain, including dry-mill ethanol plants. As ethanol plants have expanded in size and number, the need to streamline truck scale operations has increased as well. More trucks, more transactions and more samples to process all combine to create potential bottlenecks in one of the most visible facets of an ethanol plant: grain receiving.

The installation of unattended or operator-assisted terminals at a plant's grain receiving truck scale(s) is one major part of implementing a solution to make truck scale operations more efficient. Having accurate and reliable scale equipment is the second part of the equation. This is usually assured via State Weights & Measures requirements and national testing procedures for commercial scale equipment. The third part is having a strong enterprise accounting system with the flexibility to interface to the scale, terminals and grain sampling equipment used in the receiving process.

Kennedy Scales Inc. (KSI) serves clients in the ethanol, waste management, aggregate, lumber and mining industries with unattended terminals and software that streamline truck scale operations for its clients. KSI installed its first truck scale at an ethanol plant in Minnesota in the early 1990s and has installed scales at numerous plants since, primarily as a subcontractor to Fagen Inc.

Unattended terminals are designed to either be slave devices to the ethanol plant's enterprise accounting system or designed to operate independently with a programmable scale terminal serving as the hub for processing transactions, controlling peripheral devices and storing/uploading data to the enterprise accounting system in either a batch or "real-time" mode. Almost every scale manufacturer has a "programmable indicator" available for its truck scales. KSI utilizes either the Mettler Toledo JagXtreme Programmable Terminal or the Weigh-tronix 1310 Programmable Terminal in truck scale applications that require a programmable indicator.

The JagXtreme is the hub instrument in the KSI unattended system installed in 2005 for Gold Eagle Cooperative at its Corn LP ethanol plant in Goldfield, Iowa. When Corn LP began making decisions about truck scale operations for the new plant, the staff immediately realized the potential of unattended terminals for its facility. By installing the KSI unattended terminals, Corn LP eliminated not only the need for a scale house operator, but the need for the scale house itself. Other operating efficiencies included less manual data entry and fewer errors in recording transaction data. The investment for the unattended system, including hardware for three stations, software and installation, was less than the cost of the planned scale house. Corn LP enjoys ongoing efficiency and reduced operational expenses for grain receiving.

As is common in most unattended applications, truck drivers delivering grain to Corn LP are issued radio frequency identification (RFID) cards that identify them and default to account information in the system. The truck drivers scan this card at the inbound scale at the probe/unloading station and at the outbound scale. At each point, the information is automatically recorded, increasing the efficiency of the process, eliminating manual data entry errors and providing real time data to Corn LP management. Another benefit is a safer transaction since the truck driver stays in his truck, except to unload.

"Our grain receiving system is very user-friendly and eliminated the need for a scale operator," says Brad Davis, general manager of Gold Eagle Cooperative. "We are currently entertaining further improvements to our grain receiving operations."
KSI programmers wrote the software code, using JagBasic software, for the functions controlled by and stored in the JagXtreme-based system, including traffic light control and RFID card recognition. In addition, KSI wrote the software code for the computer at the probe station that marries truck scale transactions to the appropriate grain sampling data and communicates with Gold Eagle's accounting system on its computer network. The Corn LP system is designed specifically for the workflow at its facility. Gold Eagle Cooperative has a proprietary enterprise accounting system that enhanced the code writing process.

Options Abound

There are many firms that sell enterprise accounting systems for grain receiving to the grain industry. From this group, several firms are serving the ethanol industry, usually with enterprise systems developed from their base grain receiving system. An ethanol plant evaluating these vendors will find both "resellers" and proprietary vendors in the marketplace. Choosing an enterprise accounting system is an important decision with long-term ramifications to the administrative processes of an ethanol plant.

According to Bruce Ringrose, vice president of Summit Software Inc. (SSI), a leading provider of enterprise accounting systems to the grain industry, "unattended scale terminals increase truck volume by automating scale operator tasks in the inbound process and allowing for outbound transactions without operator intervention. There are many uses for unattended terminals at an ethanol plant beyond grain receiving."

SSI provides the enterprise accounting system and the unattended/operator assisted scale software solutions to Lincolnland Agri-Energy LLC, an ethanol producer in Palestine, Ill. Lincolnland utilizes KSI terminals with components that are controlled via SSI's software to maximize the efficiency of its truck scale operations.

An unattended system can be used to streamline truck scale operations for outbound product transactions, as well. Orders for outbound DDGS and wet cake products can be scheduled in advance, and order numbers can be assigned to an RFID card or PIN number. On entering the facility, the driver scans his card at the inbound terminal, and his tare weight is recorded. The truck proceeds to be loaded, then it returns to the outbound terminal, where the driver again scans his card and the completed transaction is processed. An invoice is automatically created in the office, and the driver receives a bill of lading at the outbound terminal. No operator is needed at the scales; the process is controlled from within the plant. This allows outbound transactions to be scheduled 24 hours a day, seven days a week and not be dependent upon a scale operator being on duty. Via a remote camera and intercom, plant control room personnel handle exceptions only.

In the absence of a fully automated system, a remote print station at the outbound truck scale offers several major benefits for a relatively small investment. A remote print station is the first step toward streamlining truck scale operations. Most enterprise accounting systems being offered to the ethanol industry today can accommodate a remote print station. These increase truck scale operational efficiency and provide added safety by keeping drivers in their vehicles.

Whether it is simply a remote print station to assist the scale operator or a complete system, there are real benefits for the ethanol plant that streamlines truck scale operations through the installation of unattended or operator-assisted terminals:

  • Faster work flow in processing grain delivery trucks

  • Less manual data entry, resulting in fewer errors and
    miscommunications

  • Safety; drivers stay in trucks

  • Ticket processed in real time; up-to-date customer position and inventory

  • Reduced manpower required for scale operations



All these make the "cash register" more efficient and contribute to a better bottom line for the plant and its investors.

Lee Harris is the project manager for vehicle scale systems at Kennedy Scales Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn. Contact him at lharris@kennedyscales.com or (800) 735-3038.