If you aren’t tracking returnable and refillable containers, you should, and not just because the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation require it. In fact, government regulations on containers may have unintended benefits, including improved quality control, inventory management and customer convenience. Although the regulations were issued in 2011, enforcement has been delayed. When it does begin, full-service ag retailers may find benefits outweigh costs.
“Every retailer will benefit if they embrace and move toward container tracking, and the sooner the better,” said Gary Halvorson, general manager, CHS Ag Services, Warren, Minn. “When the DOT walks in and asks for documentation, you better have it. However, it’s important simply from a management perspective as well. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Halvorson knows about measuring and managing. He works with 20 CHS agronomy locations serving 1,300 growers in 16 counties in western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota and a fleet of 4,400 containers varying from 15 gallons to 275 gallons in size. The CHS tracking system was adapted for the company’s needs by Agris. It gives Halvorson and other employees ready access to complete records on each container, including who has it and how long, what was in it and when it is expected back. If one is recovered after being lost or stolen, the barcode ID quickly accounts for its history.
“It is essential for asset utilization. We can track how many times a container has been turned in a given season and where it is at the end of the season. If a container isn’t returned, we can call and arrange a pickup,” said Halvorson.
“Tracking containers also lets you track accessory equipment like pumps and valves,” noted Logan Kahler, Kahler Automation that offers its own tracking system. “With a tracking system, you know what’s been in the unit, was it rinsed, when it was last inspected, what tests were run and where it is.”
Container Systems Evolving
Aqumix Vegetation Management Services’ customers have been enjoying tracking benefits since the late 1990s. What began in 1994 as a 15-gallon, closed-loop container system has evolved with chemical and container management software, a variety of container sizes and two regional blending/fill plants. Recently acquired by Crop Production Services (CPS), Aqumix now services CPS Timberland Division customers. Aqumix containers are proprietary units, designed specifically for its system, but the system can also utilize standard commercial containers.
“We currently have 22,000 15-gallon returnable containers in service and in our chain of custody,” explained Dave Schoonover, Aqumix founder and current services manager, CPS/Timberland Chemical and Container Management System. “We offer cradle to grave container tracking of 15-gallon and larger returnables to the non-ag sector. With our tracking software, we tied the entire supply chain into one system supplying pertinent information to each entity. The barcode on the container has all of the information related to the container and the product. All the collected information can be retrieved in various reports via our secure website or with a smartphone application.”
Having seen the benefits to customers, Schoonover is confident he will see interest in the system by CPS Ag in the near future.
Thanks to a customer request for a way to fill shuttles and mini-bulks and track them with barcode technology, Kahler is already offering its tracking system to its agricultural customers. Commercial barcode scanners and printers were integrated with existing automated systems and software. With a number of systems now in place in Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota, Kahler expects demand to build rapidly once federal enforcement begins.
“We worked closely with the EPA as we designed the system to address regulations that were going into place and what kind of information our customers would have to be able to track for regulatory purposes,” said Kahler. “We also included management features that allow the software to monitor the unit at a refill point. The operator can input information, get the initial weight and the weight of material added and account for the sale so it can be billed direct to the customer.”
Records and Container History Available
Kahler’s web-based system is set up to be self-policing as well as customer friendly. If a container is close to its required inspection date, the operator receives a notification. If the container needs to be inspected, refilling is prevented until inspection occurs. The key to the system is the barcode applied to each container and periodically scanned thereafter. A record is kept of every action involving the container. Records can be accessed via the customer’s computer system or a wireless handheld computer with a barcode scanner.
“We have iPhone and iPad apps that can scan the barcode and pull up the container’s history,” said Kahler. “Once the retailer installs the web-based system on their computer or device, they can pull up the container’s record using their browser. We can send information on the product in the container directly to them.”
Although the system Halvorson uses does not allow for customer review of container history, it does provide a complete history of the container usage and servicing, including rinsing. “Customers have the comfort of knowing a Roundup container has only been used for Roundup,” said Halvorson.
With sealed units, the tracking system can also resolve return issues. Kahler noted that if, the retailer chooses to, unused product could be returned and accounted for automatically. Once the unit is placed on the scale and the barcode has been read, the software simply subtracts returning weight from filled weight.
Halvorson said ease of crediting customers for unused product is a big plus. He noted that bulk containers are seldom returned empty. “If 1/4 of a gallon is returned, the customer gets credit for it.”
Added Benefits to Container Tracking
Schoonover suggested that container tracking could have even greater benefits as application equipment moves to direct in-line injection systems and truly customized product delivery. He predicted refillable containers with accurate tracking could have as big an impact on agricultural chemical distribution as it has on the industrial market.
Two CPS distribution centers currently handle more than 600,000 gallons of straight or blended products for the non-crop markets, going mostly into utility right of way markets. In the case of some popular products, they are the sole packager, with product coming in bulk from the manufacturing plant to the Aqumix center. Distributors or their customers can order products custom blended as needed for a particular use in exact amounts for the area to be treated.
Aqumix currently offers 15-gallon, 30-gallon and larger, up to 270-gallon, poly containers in a cage and 330-gallon stainless steel containers. Over time, Schoonover has seen the industrial herbicide market shift to the smaller container. “The 15-gallon container is easy to handle,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, 70 percent of the containers we handled were 30-gallon units, but today 80 percent are 15-gallon units.”
Schoonover believes the container handling system developed for CPS, which recently opened in Oregon, will make the closed cycle container system even more attractive to agricultural retailers. “It is a completely different type of bulk facility without cement dikes and fixed pipes,” he said. “The three modules are the dike system, bulk tanks and metering and elecronic skid. All that is needed is warehouse floor space. Add air pressure and electricity and you are ready to go. Unlike a fixed bulk facility, this equipment is designed to be moved to another location with relative ease.”