Articles Within Our Area of Expertise: Quality Control
Discovering Common Ground
Providing high-quality products in an economical manner is a challenge we all face.
One of the challenges of working in the global seed industry is the great distances we must travel to cover our vast territories—it’s an extensive marketplace involving most countries around the world. Add to that the differences in culture and core values between countries. However, from my travels to North and South America, the Baltic countries, India and within Europe, I’ve realized there are more similarities among people and businesses than there are differences. The people I meet and the businesses they own and operate have much common ground, including an aim to provide high-quality products, pride in those products they produce, and prudent resource management.
We have a direct connection to the food industry, so we’re all very quality-minded and we aim for the highest standards in our work and our products. We are also mindful of providing cost-effective solutions for our customers and, ultimately, for the farmer, who is also running a business and must make a profit. Providing high-quality products in an economical manner is a challenge we all face.
Another reality for our industry—and a challenge for most stakeholders—is regulatory compliance. In Europe, products must meet European Union requirements to protect human and animal health, the environment and consumer rights. We must also provide detailed risk analyses for the products we produce. However, as a European seed treatment equipment company, the regulations we must comply with also provide many business advantages. To sell equipment in Europe, you must be a Certified European manufacturer. The letters “CE” signify products sold in the European Economic Area have been assessed to meet high safety, health and environmental protection requirements.
What this means for our business is all processes, from delivery and installation to handling chemicals and operating equipment, as well as unit disposal, must meet EU regulations. Most importantly, by buying CE-approved equipment, operators know all risks have been considered and they won’t be exposed to chemicals or hurt in any way, no matter where they are in the world. In fact, European seed companies must buy Certified European equipment in order to install it. However, given the opportunity, I believe the industry would continue to choose equipment made to meet these rigorous standards because businesses want machines to be safe, easy to clean, while operating at minimal risk to health, safety and the environment.
For example, in Europe, seed treatment equipment must operate within closed systems: from the barrel all the way to bagged seed, the operator does not come into contact with the seed treatment chemicals. One dosing system is connected to each slurry or chemical. Chemicals, or products, are mixed in the machine before application. This also goes hand-in-hand with product quality because machines are easily cleaned and dosing rates are managed within the system, increasing application accuracy. Additionally, the equipment’s sophisticated and regulated system provides statistics on everything from dosing rates to cleaning records. It’s also easier to attract and retain equipment operators for closed systems.
The demand for seed treatments in North and South America, Africa, China and the Baltic countries, to name a few, is large and increasing. There is also an upward trend toward high-volume mobile trailers.
What I’ve discovered from traveling to the countries that make up our markets is the businesses in those countries are actively seeking out equipment that meets the high standards set by EU regulations—yet more common ground across diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds. I believe we will continue to see our industry striving in this way for the protection of human and animal safety and health and the environment.
Who invests in mediocre?
“Under-promising deliberately undersells your capabilities. It promises only a fraction of what you know you and your products can reasonably do. In reality, it is deliberately selling yourself short — just to be safe.”
Many companies’ customer service policy includes a reference to “underpromise and over-deliver.” At a time when businesses were just beginning to understand the value of customer service, such a strategy suddenly had a place.
Those days are long gone, as this phrase has become a tired, wornout cliché. Customers know better. Consistently over-delivering on lowered customer expectations suggests you are sandbagging your promises. In time, your weak promises will hurt your credibility. A better strategy is to honestly make reasonable promises and expand your efforts to follow through.
Under-promising deliberately undersells your capabilities. It promises only a fraction of what you know you and your products can reasonably do. In reality, it is deliberately selling yourself short — just to be safe. In a sales situation, under-promising can leave your bid vulnerable to a less qualified competitor, who makes a stronger promise even if that promise does no more than meet your reasonable albeit undervalued capabilities. Under-promising can also open the door to below-par follow through.
Under promising eventually leads to performance that tolerates accepting “good enough” when you are capable of being good. When quality control says a product is “good enough,” it is an admission that it is not good. When “good enough” products and services are judged acceptable because they meet the customer’s under-promised expectations, a lowered expectation becomes the new, lower standard of acceptable quality. Not only to the customer, but also prevents your employees to thrive for excellence.
Lowering expectations reduces incentives to make the extra effort needed to reach the top. Every front-line employee who has any customer contact becomes the standard bearer for your business. When anyone knows your performance or product could be improved, but they also know that it already exceeds your underpromised standards, there is less incentive for improvement.
People respect people who do what they say they are going to do. People also understand that some events are beyond your control and affect performance. You cannot afford to under-promise just because something unknown might happen. If a labor dispute disrupts normal truck shipments, follow through with extraordinary efforts to arrange shipment and perhaps absorb some of any added costs.
A more productive alternative to underpromising is to promise reasonably and focus on extraordinary follow-through to bring out the best from your team, your products and your service.
Pushing the envelope requires a commitment to proper application
As the world demands more food and more constraints are placed on the resources needed to grow that food, the more important seed technology becomes. From a farmer perspective as the value of the seed he or she is buying increases, so does the need to protect that investment. These are just a few of the reasons we’ve seen tremendous growth in the adoption of seed treatments during the past decade. Given these benefits, it stands to reason that the market will push the envelope on what we can adhere to the exterior of the seed.
There are a number of steps a seed must go through before it makes its way to farmers for planting — cleaning and conditioning, laboratory for testing, storage, treating and processing. It’s extremely important to note that the quality and efficacy of seed-applied technologies hinge on starting with quality clean seed. If you begin the process with seed that’s not clean, that treatment won’t stick. It’s the same thing with any type of adhesive: the surface to which you are applying the adhesive must first be cleaned.
Only after you have clean seed can we look at the role dosage rates or loading of active ingredients play. With today’s technology, it’s very easy to achieve accurate dosing rates. We can easily get down to 50 milliliters per 100 kilograms (1.69 ounces per 220 pounds) of seed.
For example, we have 100 kg. (220 lbs.) of barley seed with a surface area of 150 square meters (1,600 square feet). Here, the seed treatment equipment is capable of distributing 50 ml. of liquid at 150 square meters, or 1.69 ounces over 1,600 square feet. Let that thought sink in for a moment … add to that the demand is often a capacity above 45 tons of treated seed per hour (in closed systems).
It’s really a delicate balance. You don’t want to over-apply product at the risk of damaging the seed, wasting the product and adding extra expense to your operation. On the flip side, if you don’t apply enough then you might not get the intended benefits. To ensure you are consistently applying the right rate, it’s important to evaluate the uniformity of your end product. As a general rule of thumb, 80 percent of the individual seeds should have a dosage rate of plus or minus 20 percent of the average value.
So as we look to the future of seed treatments and the role they play, it’s increasingly important to make sure we have quality application with the precise amount of active ingredient being applied to the seed. If you don’t have it down to a science now, I must ask: “What will you do when application rates double?”
5 Common pitfalls to high quality seed treatment application
As a seed treatment applicator, it’s to your benefit to accurately apply the proper rate of active ingredient to each batch of seed, batch after batch and day after day. This not only saves you money by not over applying the seed treatment, but also helps to ensure customer satisfaction by not under applying.
However, with application rates as low as 50 milliliters per 100 kilograms (1.7 ounces per 220 pounds) of seed, achieving a high quality application time after time can be a challenge — one that’s not solved by simply adding more water or more colorant.
As a manufacturer and provider of sophisticated seed treatment equipment, there are some common pitfalls I see when I visit facilities to talk about high quality application and our equipment. The five most common are:
- Not stirring or mixing the barrel just prior to application. With a product that might not be homogenous, operators don’t know if the active ingredient is on the seed or at the bottom of the barrel.
- Adding more water or colorant to make the seed shine bright. This practice dilutes the formulation and reduces the efficacy of the product, and it’s usually a cover up for poor quality application. If you add enough water and colorant, you can make any seed look like it’s got even coverage and a high quality treatment.
- Incorrectly or not calculating the weight of a seed batch. The weight of seed varies with each batch. To attain the proper application rate, it’s important to measure and calculate the volume of seed to be treated.
- Setting the tolerance rate too high. It doesn’t matter how you set the dosage rate on your seed treatment system, if the tolerances are too high, you’ll never get a high quality application.
- Not properly cleaning seed prior to treatment. Dust might be the No. 1 cause for not achieving a high quality application. It doesn’t matter if you properly measured the liquids and weighed the seed, dust prevents the treatment from sticking to the seed. Having a dust reduction system as part of your seed treatment equipment can significantly help.
By avoiding these common pitfalls, you can begin to achieve high quality seed treatment application, batch after batch. Today’s market provides increasing opportunities to add value to the seed and really push the envelope in terms of what the industry can do.
A sophisticated PLC system can track recipes, continuously check dosage rates and provide real-time statistics about what’s happening at a particular facility. Machine-to-machine communications makes it easy to maintain quality control, from season to season and facility to facility. This all culminates in helping not just meet customer expectations, but exceeding them. A printout that details the high quality application shines better than any colorant.
Do you overdose your seed? Chances are you do, and you don't even know it.
Is the seed treated, or does it just look like it? In the seed treatment sector, it’s quite common for quality to be determined by visual inspection. If it has a nice, bright color, it’s considered good. But is it?
Today’s complex treatments and the number of products available give you a world of opportunities to add value to your seed, but can a visual inspection determine the quality of seed treatment application that is going to give you and your customer the return on investment you’re looking for? No, it cannot.
Application rates are down to 1.7 ounces per 220 pounds of seed. While that saves us from transporting water, it puts pressure on equipment suppliers. Not only is it a challenge to apply this tiny dose evenly over every single seed, but there’s also the need to check dosage rate tolerances. You must ensure that you’re not applying too little, resulting in a lack of protection. You also need to ensure that you don’t overdose and kill the seed, or just waste your money.
Even if you use more common application rates, accuracy is critical. Let’s say you want to apply 6.8 ounces of treatment per 2,200 pounds of seed. If dosage rates differ by more than 10 percent and you have a processing capacity of 45 tons per hour, this means you might use an extra 2,700 ounces of chemical in one day. Imagine what that does to your budget over the long run.
Using a sophisticated continuous flow control in your application system allows you to program what dosage differences you can tolerate, and that is a good investment. The ability to control the tolerances and keep an accurate dosage rate will pay dividends. But to maintain a low tolerance of difference, you need to have a sophisticated system to begin with. If using an application system based on weight lost, it’s important to know that the application is based on the density of the chemicals — a factor that’s never consistent. Even when using the same product, the density of each barrel can differ. This means you will get a different dosing rate on the seed with every package change.
Also, if you pump the treatment directly from the chemical tank up to your application in the treater, you will get a different dosage rate depending on the volume in the tank. Whether or not your tank is nearly full or more than half empty will result in different pressure levels on the transportation pump and that affects the dosing rate. On top of that, if you use peristaltic pumps in your system, temperature must also be considered. Typically mornings bring lower temperatures, which gradually rise throughout the day. As the temperature increases, the hoses in your peristaltic pump expand, giving you different dosage rates.
Choosing a sophisticated system to help you push the envelope and control dosage rates with precision is a good investment. But not everything that shines is gold, so make sure you know what you are buying.