Farming company replaces proprietary HMI with HMI/SCADA software


To stay competitive with large-scale agricultural producers, today’s small, privately-owned farms are turning to automation as a way to improve the efficiency of their operations.

Automatic Farm Systems (AFS) in Lebanon, Pennsylvania (    manufactures, sells and installs feed and grain handling equipment (Figure 1 below).

In business since 1982, AFS has been developing automated solutions from the ground up. Independently operated farms use its equipment to automate and customise feed mixes for poultry and swine.

Figure 1: This feed mill machine produces custom feed mixes for farmers via a highly automated, accurate and reliable process.

AFS recently decided to upgrade its proprietary computer-based HMI with a new design for its feed mill application. AFS wanted a solution for its feed mill equipment that would be easily customisable for individual installations that have a wide variety of configurations.

While AFS was confident a superior control and monitoring system for its equipment would give the company a competitive advantage, the solution would also have to be cost effective.

Wilson-Groom, a systems integrator in Brownstown, Pa, has experience creating data-driven SCADA systems.

Wilson-Groom developed an automation system for AFS based on InduSoft (Web Studio HMI/SCADA software. On the first application, the new automation system reduced a customer’s feed mixing time by 50 percent.

The results were so good that AFS is now installing the HMI/SCADA software on all its products that require this level of automation.

Replacing the legacy HMI

Independently operated farms must keep operating costs low to compete against the big agricultural companies. An effective method for cutting costs is the careful control of the ingredients in each feed mix. AFS designs and sells feed mixing systems, customizing each one for the needs of individual farmers. The problem was that customising each new feed mixer was becoming difficult with the legacy proprietary automation system.

The original automation system designed used a proprietary Windows-based HMI developed in C+ language. The HMI communicated to an Allen-Bradley PLC, which in turns was connected to Opto22 I/O (Figure 2 below). AFS did not have a problem with the PLC or the I/O, but it did have a problem with HMI software.

Figure 2: Automation systems for AFS feed mixers were based on Allen-Bradley PLCs and Opto 22 I/O.

While the original HMI software met AFS’ basic needs, it was an inflexible solution that couldn’t be easily changed to accommodate different architectures, or to meet customers’ varied needs.

Moreover, the costs associated with changing the HMI program were high due to its proprietary C+ programming, and the database didn’t work with Windows Vista or Windows 7. AFS realised it needed to find a new solution that would be able to adapt to changing technology more readily.

Identifying the needs

To find out what would be involved in configuring such a control system, AFS arranged for Wilson-Groom’s engineers to work with an actual farmer to find out what the problems were, and what a typical customer needed in the automation system.

An AFS customer, Kerek Musser, who operates a small farm in Mannheim, Pa., was selected as an ideal candidate for Automated Farm System’s new control system. Musser agreed and his farm became the testing ground for the development process.

The Kerek Musser farm was selected because its farming operations required a high level of control over the specific blends of micronutrients and ingredients used in each feed mix. In addition, Musser needed to record each mix and batch, then use that data to analyze the cost effectiveness of different recipes.

Musser wanted to be able to create and store his own recipes for his feed mixes, and he wanted to be able to adjust his mixes when the costs of micronutrients or macronutrients changed. In addition, he needed a system that could be easily modified when he discovered new functions he wanted to include.

Unfortunately, while the original idea to build a system based on Microsoft Access combined with a separate application for recipe creation and storage could meet some of these needs, it could not meet all of them.

Could an off-the-shelf HMI/SCADA software package replace the custom programming and provide the necessary flexibility at a reasonable price?

Finding the Right HMI/SCADA Package

The requirements included a platform that could work with virtually any PLC or other type of controller, and that would combine both HMI and SCADA functionality in one product to keep costs down.

The search for a suitable HMI/SCADA package began. Unfortunately, most were cost prohibitive or lacked the necessary flexibility. Eventually, the engineers discovered InduSoft Web Studio, bought a package, and began development.

Wilson-Groom began developing the HMI/SCADA solution for Musser and found the software intuitive to use, with a good support system to turn to for assistance. The SCADA package’s native communication drivers for the Allen-Bradley PLC used in the AFS feed mill system made communicating with the PLC seamless, and significantly shortened development time.

Simplifying batch creation and monitoring

The solution developed for the Kerek Musser Farm included not only the originally required functionality, but additional functions that have proven very beneficial, such as an email feature to send text messages to the operator when an alarm occurs.

The application controls the ingredient augers used for mixing chicken and hog feed. The HMI residing on Musser’s computer gives a graphical representation of the system and displays alarms.

It has a user-friendly operator interface (Figure 3 below) for entering batch and ingredient data, as well as the ability to monitor the status of the batch sequence. Batches are sometimes queued to create tons of feed at a time, and many batches can take a several hours to complete.

Figure 3: Adding data to a recipe is simply executed through pop-up windows

The previous system required an operator to constantly check the batch status, but now the operator can glance at the animated arrows to view which step of the process is being performed.

The operator also receives a “Batch Complete” text message when the process is done. The automated system allows the operator to start another batch if one isn’t automatically queued.

Figure 4: HMI visualisation capabilities help operators more easily identify areas that need attention, such as low ingredient inventories.

The system also has a Secure Viewer thin client that enables users to access the system from a remote computer on a local intranet. Because the HMI/SCADA software has web server capabilities, it can be remotely accessed via any web browser, providing access from a wide variety of PC-based and smartphone platforms.

The Musser farm comprises eighty acres, so an operator can’t always monitor the process from the HMI computer terminal. The system’s remote access, coupled with the text message alarms, helps operators quickly correct jams in the feed augers using the auto/manual switches on the auger or restart a stopped batch.

Using the old system, if an operator wasn’t sitting at the HMI screen when process jammed or stopped, it couldn’t be corrected until someone noticed the issue on the main PC.

Database connectivity is also an important feature of the application. Small farms are greatly affected by the fluctuations in the cost of ingredients, thus they are constantly refining mixes and recipes to obtain the highest quality, most cost-effective feed.  

The database stores ingredient information, inventory, recipes, alarm logs, batch history, mix history and costs to help small farms determine the best mixes. The application provides the ability to generate valuable reports that detail vital information, such as the cost of each batch and the history of each mix. This capability also delivers a high degree of traceability and product tracking from the individual ingredients to the final mix.

Security features include the ability to restrict access to higher level functions through security clearance, using usernames and passwords, as well as logging changes made to recipes and mixes. 

Results justify investment

System improvements for AFS and its customer Kerek Musser have been overwhelmingly positive. For Musser, the time spent mixing feed has decreased by at least 50 percent because the system can perform more than one task at a time. In addition, mobile notifications enable operators to immediately correct problems, such as an auger getting clogged or an ingredient running low, eliminating hours of downtime.

AFS is now able to deliver a proven feed mill application that offers advanced features. Moreover, by using an off-the-shelf HMI/SCADA solution that is very flexible, AFS doesn’t have to cut into its profit margin or significantly raise prices for its customers to justify added features.

The list below summarises the benefits of using an off-the-shelf HMI/SCADA system.

  • Off-the-shelf software keeps development costs low.
  • Native drivers make communication with multiple hardware types easy.
  • Sophisticated views of the batch process show the exact step of the process occurring at that moment.
  • Remote access and monitoring enables operators to respond quickly to problems, eliminating hours of downtime.
  • Exceptional track and trace features, along with reporting, helps farms optimise mix ingredients to cut costs.

The system also can be easily modified to reflect the diverse needs of its customer base, without incurring additional costs to AFS. This makes its product more competitive in a market where customers expect features like traceability, as well as the ability to track each batch from start to finish, and to generate reports on the cost of each mix.

As a result of the success of the initial project, plans are in the works to upgrade the software to include even more advanced mobile notification, such as relaying information about the mixing process to mobile devices like an iPad or a smartphone.

Because the HMI/SCADA software is so flexible, AFS will be using it on its entire line of products that require this or similar levels of functionality.