Against the grain
A willingness to explore new technology has seen agricultural supplier HE Silos vastly extend the life of stored grain, securing profits for farmers in a fluctuating market. The company won the Excellence in Innovation and the Business of the Year awards at the 2016 NSW Business Chamber Business Awards. HE Silos CEO Steven Morrison and Operations Manager Larry Storm talked with Biz Better Together about their path to innovation.
Grain is one of Australia's most important and versatile agricultural crops, used in everything from bread and beer-making to feeding meat-producing animals.
Yet the success or failure of a crop can come down to one thing: keeping insects at bay. Failure to effectively control insects during storage can lead to losses of tens of thousands of dollars due to contamination and degradation of quality.
Traditionally, insect populations have been eradicated using phosphine tablets that are introduced to a grain silo from the top. While effective, the technique is inherently risky, with the potential for workers to fall off the silo, or into the grain inside, where they can drown. It can also lead to gas build-up which can explode.
Identifying the problem
Recognising the problem, Forbes-based company HE Silos, which has manufactured grain silos since 1969, set out to come up with an alternative. Their solution? A system which can be retro-fitted to silos to allow farmers to put the phosphine tablets in at ground-level instead. The company has also started manufacturing silos with the new system installed.
According to Larry Storm, Operations Manager of HE Silos, the system not only eliminates risks to farmers' safety, but can also benefit their bottom line. The system pays for itself in its first year. "If we could reduce grain degradation in silos by 2%, it would not only help secure the grain supply, there's a cash benefit that goes straight into the famer's pocket," he says. "The difference in the price of downgraded grain to quality grain is $40 a tonne, so in just one 100 tonne silo that's $4,000. That's a lot of money."
Outside the box thinking
The innovation has seen the company experience 30% growth since its release in 2015, without any formal marketing or product launch.
With grain storage part of an established agricultural industry where change happens at a slow pace, HE Silos CEO Steven Morrison says they drew on their extensive industry experience, along with a willingness to think outside the box and explore new technology.
The company invested in sophisticated Computer Aided Design (CAD) software and brought on an engineer. "We can now model, prototype and test everything in 3D; examining everything from the nuts and bolts up," he says.
"What has given us the edge is data monitoring and logging of temperature and humidity to track how the phosphine gas moves in the silos," Larry adds. "The program is essentially a typical Manufacturing Replenishment Program (M RP). It's integrated, so it tracks the history of every product, where it is installed, what kind of silo; it generates our production schedule."
Persistence pays off
While getting the project off the ground hasn't been without its challenges, Steven says that being persistent has paid off. "Setting aside the time to even think about innovation is important," he says. "Asking yourself, 'What could I do differently?'.
"But you [also] have to be willing to put the work in. It's about tweaking the little things that make a big difference. You have to be persistent to get results."
This article was produced in cooperation with the NSW Business Chamber. A version of this article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Business Connect.