GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

Don Schaefer

email_header_image_Getting_Better.jpg

We product design engineers love to create the next big thing. In the best case scenario, we start with a concept and then take what we have learned from our customers and our counterparts in sales, marketing and production, and then create a product definition. Once approved, we get to work (and hope no one bothers us) until it is designed, tested, and brought into production! Then we bask in the glow of the marketing buzz and the upward trending sales charts while we plan our next project.

Well, that’s the best case scenario, anyway.

But I have found that the best rewards, at least in my industry, come from making our current products better. By “rewards,” I am talking about rewards to our customers, our company, and that personal reward of accomplishment. By “making our current products better,” I mean giving the old dogs new tricks to appeal to a larger market, or making the product more appealing or valuable to the current market. It may not be as glamorous as “concept to production,” but it’s just as necessary and can be just as rewarding.

Of course, success in product enhancement begins with a product that is designed to be enhanced. So, the “concept to production” projects must be judged not only on initial market success, but also on the “improvability” of those products.

Sometimes opportunities for improvement come from second guessing. I think that the best product designers have a healthy habit of second guessing themselves.

Sometimes improvement opportunities come about because customers bring them to us, or because we are more experienced than we were during the original design and recognize the opportunities ourselves.

Sometimes opportunities come about because technology has changed or costs have changed, usually due to competition between suppliers (isn’t the free market system awesome?).

I have a recent example in my company. If you know about IntelliFarms, you know that our initial product was BinManager, which provides automated control of fans and heaters attached to grain bins in order to condition the stored grain.

Well, when we first designed BinManager about nine years ago, we had to decide on how we would use the our innovative new in-grain moisture sensor: one of the key system components. Several of these are attached to a “moisture cable” which is hung vertically in the grain bin and then covered by grain. The moisture sensors measure the moisture content of the grain—a very critical input into theBinManager control system. But the moisture sensors are very expensive—much more expensive than the temperature sensors the system uses to detect hot spots. When we were designing theBinManager, we felt that if we used moisture sensors on every cable inside a bin, then the system would be too expensive for our customers.

So, we reached a compromise—every BinManager would have one moisture cable and the rest of the cables would measure temperature only. That’s a pretty good compromise for cost reasons and, in the large majority of cases, there is no operational downside. That’s because grain moisture content is pretty consistent at any vertical point in a bin, so one moisture cable gives the BinManager enough feedback for good quality operation. Years of experience has now validated this decision;BinManager has managed grain very successfully using just one moisture cable in a bin.

But, looking at this again in 2016 we asked, “Why not get better?” After all, we already make several hardware upgrades and perhaps dozens of firmware upgrades every year to increase reliability, improve performance or add new features to BinManager. Why not take a second look at this fundamental call made so long ago? Why not see if we can give every cable the ability to measure both moisture and temperature?

So we researched the issues again.

First, the costs had to make sense. Our goal was hold steady the total system price for an average sized grain bin—an average system had 1 moisture cable and 4 temperature cables and would now have 5 moisture cables. We were able to shake some costs out through the benefits of higher volumes, and, with only one type of cable to build, we were able to reduce inventory costs. That made it close enough to our target to continue.

Then, the technology had to work. One of the challenges is that the BinManager’s Master Controller would need a large increase in working memory. Sorry if this is getting geeky….but the simple explanation is that it takes about ten times more memory to process moisture data than just temperature data. Fortunately, we already had extra memory in place for those systems built after June 2013. The chip was already inside the Master Controller, it just wasn’t being used. It was one of those “improvability” hooks we put in place during a redesign for our larger Master Controller enclosures. So, with that chip we created a new file system, freeing up other memory, and removing the technology hurdle so that all-moisture data could be processed.

Finally, this had to be a real improvement. After all, it would take plenty of engineering to make this happen and we have lots of other products and improvements we are already working on. So, would going to 100% sensors that measure both moisture and temperature make the BinManager better? Better enough to be worth it?

We feel the answer is absolutely yes. For one thing, it is always better to have more information—getting both temperature AND moisture measurements on every sensor is certainly better than getting them on only one cable’s sensors. We have seen over the years that for most situations it is adequate to measure moisture at only one place at each vertical layer. But in other situations, such as where the original moisture content is uneven throughout the bin, or where there are fines collected in the center, having every sensor measure both temperature and moisture gives BinManager some previously hidden information, enabling it to make even better decisions on running the fans and heaters. In addition, it provides a more complete picture of the grain when our customers monitor them using their online accounts.

So we rolled out our new 3G Plus™ cables in early 2016, with every sensor measuring both moisture and temperature. I think it has been worth it—better grain management and better reporting without an overall increase in price.

The cool thing is, we’re continuing to build on these cables even further. I am excited to share news on upcomingmeasurement capabilities and improvements to come later this year.

I look at my products like a good house. If it is built well and on a good foundation, you don’t need to build again to upgrade—you can keep improving on the one you have. And that can be very satisfying, indeed.