Daniel Kallestad adds: “More significant still: if we could capture and store all this data on the conditions in each bin, we would be able to prove that the grain within those bins had never been subjected to conditions that would allow spoilage to occur. This effectively amounts to a certification that the grain is 100 percent pure. And that’s what is really going to shake up this industry. Once food companies and regulators—and consumers—realize that it’s possible to obtain perfect grain, with full traceability from harvesting through to delivery, they won’t settle for anything less.”
Going against the grain
To turn its vision into a reality, TGM needed a database platform that would enable it to harness the power of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, while providing complete reliability and scalability to meet the needs of tens of thousands of customers.
“We’ll be working with some of the largest and most powerful companies in the agriculture and food industries, so we can’t afford our technology to fail,” says Daniel Kallestad. “And the technical challenge is significant: we need to capture weather data from the bin site and sensor data from the bins themselves on a minute-by-minute basis, as well as capture their location down to the centimeter. With a potential market of more than 300,000 grain storage sites in the US alone, that’s an enormous amount of data to capture, store and analyze.”
Christopher Sears adds: “We decided to work with IBM for a couple of key reasons. The first was that IBM has a solid reputation for solving these kinds of large-scale problems, and is well-known and respected by the major players in government and the food industry. These are the organizations that will create demand for our solution, and having a big name like IBM in our corner is important to give them confidence that we can deliver what we promise.”
“The second was that the IBM® Informix® database platform offered exactly what we needed for our Internet of Things solution. IBM Informix is capable of being embedded in relatively small devices, such as IoT Gateways, and it has zero administrative overhead. It can reliably capture massive volumes of time-series and geospatial data at very high velocity, which is critical to IoT solutions.
“IBM Informix is also able to replicate that data to the cloud, where it can provide enterprise class hybrid data management capabilities across various data types, besides offering very fine-grained security whether the data is at rest in the database, or in motion. That last point is important: the grain industry is extremely sensitive about its quality and inventory levels, so we need to be able to assure our customers that all data will be in safe hands.”
The solution—known as the TGM System—includes an advanced weather station called a SiteLink, which captures very precise weather data from unique relative humidity sensors that use micro-beam technology. The SiteLink is connected to the other components of the system using Power-over-ethernet technology, which avoids the need to include a power supply in the SiteLink itself. This minimizes the heat generated within the SiteLink, thereby improving the accuracy of its readings.
The second major component is the Bin Intelligence device, or “Bintel”—a master controller that collects weather data from the SiteLink and combines it with data captured by the sensors and fan actuators that are installed on each storage bin. The bin sensors are connected to the Bintel via Ethernet-over-power links, which reduces costs and facilitates installation by transmitting data over existing electrical cabling.
The weather and bin data are captured by an IBM Informix database embedded in the Bintel, which in turn connects to TGM’s secure private network and replicates the information to a central IBM Informix database. The data can then be accessed via iPAC, a tablet app that gives authorized users a real-time dashboard that shows the status of each bin, and allows users to adjust the settings of the automated fan systems, or even take manual control if they wish.
Daniel Kallestad comments: “We looked at a more traditional relational database alongside Informix, and there was just no contest. Almost all of the capabilities we need are built into Informix as standard, so it has saved us a huge amount of development time—in particular around time-series data and replication. It’s the engine that makes the whole solution possible.”
Building a smarter, safer, more sustainable future
Over the next 12 months, TGM expects to have rolled out this new Internet of Things solution to more than 1,000 sites. Once growers and food companies begin to realize the benefits, TGM hopes to gain the momentum it needs to encourage transformation throughout the entire US grain industry.
Daniel Kallestad says: “Our competitors watch the grain; we watch the weather. They can tell you when your grain has started to spoil—but by that point, it’s already too late. Our system takes action to prevent spoilage from happening in the first place, by maintaining conditions that make mold and insect activity practically impossible.
“It’s a simple proposition, but it’s very difficult for growers to understand, because they’re coming from a mindset that grain spoilage is not preventable. For them, it’s just a matter of how long it takes before the level of spoilage reaches unacceptable levels. We’re saying that if you use the TGM System, your grain will not spoil—at all—within the time it takes to reach the end-customer.”
In a world where as much as 30 percent of grain production is currently ruined by spoilage, this is welcome news—not just for farmers and food companies, but for humanity as a whole. Avoiding food waste means we can feed more people while consuming fewer natural resources—and since rainforests and river basins are being depleted at an unsustainable rate to support a growing population, the more efficient our agriculture becomes, the better it is for everyone.
The government and healthcare sectors should also be keen to see traceability systems such as TGM’s gain wider traction in the grain industry. If grain shipments can be certified as free of contamination and full traceability from farm of origin to end-customer can be put in place, the risk of poisonous mycotoxins being introduced into the food chain could be significantly mitigated—potentially saving billions of dollars in healthcare costs.
On a more immediately practical level, the financial benefits of the solution should be significant. Research indicates that taking into account the costs of implementing a grain purity tracking system, growers will be able to make significant profits by commanding a higher price per bushel for purer qualities of grain. For the highest-quality identity-preserved grains, profits could be in excess of 50 percent per bushel.2
The solution could also help farmers significantly mitigate risk by making smarter decisions about how long to store grain and when to sell it. Without violating the privacy of individual participants, the TGM System will provide the best supply picture available, so that growers can better understand demand patterns, and avoid selling at a low price during the post-harvest glut.
“This also provides a new business opportunity for TGM,” explains Christopher Sears. “In the history of the farming industry, it has never been possible to buy grain spoilage insurance, because no insurer has ever been confident enough in traditional grain storage. We’ve taken out a patent on this type of insurance, because we’re confident that we could offer it to TGM customers with a minimum of risk.”
Daniel Kallestad concludes: “A change is coming to the grain industry. Soon enough, the food companies will understand that they don’t have to accept contamination in the grain they buy; the government will realize that quality standards can be applied to grain just as much as to other foods; and the general public will learn about the health and environmental cost of today’s outdated working practices.
“With IBM Informix, running on IBM POWER8® systems, powering our Internet of Things solution, we can not only help the industry solve all of these problems—we will also deliver measurable return on investment for growers and other market participants by eliminating waste and boosting profits. In our opinion, it’s a deal that is too good for the industry to ignore.”