Earth's population is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, and farmers around the world will have the responsibility of producing enough food for this surging global population. Their primary challenge will be in getting more out of their existing fields and improving crop performance to produce higher yields – and it all begins with the seeds they plant in the ground.
Monsanto is one of the world's top providers of, vegetable and crop seeds, as well as crop-protection products. The company employs 21,000 workers at about 400 facilities in 66 countries, and supports the work of millions of farmers around the world.
Within its seed business, Monsanto works to improve seed performance so seeds can healthily grow in the most challenging farming operations and environments. The company accomplishes this through various breeding programs that improve seed performance and allow plants to adapt to local growing conditions. It also uses biotechnology to help strengthen plants with beneficial traits, such as improved drought tolerance or pest resistance, that can't be achieved through breeding.
Monsanto's seed business works with farmers across America to raise and harvest the company's seeds in the farmers' fields. After harvesting, the seeds are shipped to a Monsanto pre-commercial seed facility for conditioning. This involves cleaning, sizing, treating and packaging the seeds before shipping them to farmers around the world.
Monsanto recently decided to consolidate three of its pre-commercial seed locations in Iowa and replace them with a new North American seed-conditioning facility in Grinnell, Iowa. The greenfield facility would provide increased seed-conditioning capacity for the rising production volumes that the company was experiencing. It would be built with flexibility and scalability in mind to support the easy addition of new seed-conditioning lines as production volumes further increased.
Monsanto's primary reason for consolidating its three facilities into one was to increase the company's seed-conditioning capacity. But the new facility also provided an opportunity to improve seed quality and product-traceability capabilities during the seed-conditioning and packaging processes.
The three previous seed-conditioning facilities used outdated equipment. The control system interface lacked intuitive processing information and start-to-finish automated product traceability. The employees were instead forced to track products on paper, which was inefficient and prone to human error. Building a new state-of-the-art facility with a flexible control system would help improve seed consistency and reduce product loss.
The facility also required a flexible and expandable distributed safety system, which would be among the first of such systems for a Monsanto seed facility.
Monsanto had an aggressive timeline in place to get its new Grinnell facility up and running. The company set a goal for establishing the facility – from design and construction to commissioning and operation – in less than 18 months.
Monsanto brought in its longtime systems integration partner, ESCO Automation, to help design and build the facility from the ground up and meet the tight schedule.
ESCO Automation, a Rockwell Automation Recognized System Integrator, took the current and future operational demands into account when designing the facility's control infrastructure. Only two seed-conditioning lines were initially needed, but Monsanto wanted the capability to build up to five lines to accommodate future growth. ESCO Automation opted for an independent-line design approach that could be scaled to grow with the company.
“The ability to easily scale up for future operations required a flexible control system capable of integrating the entire operation,” said Greg Boyce, seed process engineer for Monsanto. “Currently, Rockwell Automation control technology is the approved standard for our seed facilities. The PlantPAx® process automation system was selected to provide distributed control and information capabilities that could easily scale as our needs increased.”
The PlantPAx modern distributed control system provides integrated control across the new facility, from bulk receiving to the individual seed-conditioning lines to packaging. Its traceability capabilities give operators new levels of visibility into product flow that were not available at the former seed-conditioning sites. Seeds brought into the facility are now registered into the system via bar code before being placed into bulk storage to await the conditioning process.
Once the seeds are registered into the system, operators can track them from storage, along each individual seed-conditioning line and through the packaging process utilizing the PlantPAx visualization software. Mobile integration allows this and other process information to be viewed anywhere on-site or even remotely using tablets..
The PlantPAx system incorporates distributed safety capabilities with distributed I/O to eliminate interconnected wires between panels. The system provides configurable control of each safety device and is designed to expand as new lines are installed.
Monsanto's Grinnell facility was completed on schedule, and today serves as a centralized location for the conditioning and packaging of about 150 seed varieties and approximately 6,000 to 8,000 seed sub-batches.
The complete product traceability available on all four lines helped Monsanto bring product quality and consistency to new levels at the facility.
“The track-and-trace technology is providing 100 percent traceability on each seed-conditioning line,” Boyce said. “We're producing a consistently high-quality product for farmers around the world. This technology has improved our productivity by 50 percent and reduced our losses to zero.”
ESCO Automation also took advantage of the user-defined tags, add-on instructions and faceplates available through the PlantPAx infrastructure. This helped in the development and deployment of a device-level library of pretested and fully functional code, which was customized to incorporate Monsanto's existing standards. Integration was simplified and development time was reduced by about 40 percent, according to ESCO Automation estimates, keeping the facility on schedule for its planned launch date.
The facility launched with two seed-conditioning lines and has since expanded with two additional lines. The scalability combined with the standardized programming available within the PlantPAx system made those line expansions seamless for the production operators and systems integrators.
“When we make the decision to scale up to our fifth and final line in this facility, we know that the infrastructure we already have in place will again help ensure the installation process is easy and worry-free,” Boyce said.
The results mentioned above are specific to Monsanto's use of Rockwell Automation products and services in conjunction with other products. Specific results may vary for other customers.