A Sensible Guide to Silo Inventory Monitoring Systems

Automating your silo inventory is easier than you might think. This guide gives you a basic understanding of the components of a silo inventory system and provides insights into some things you might not have thought about to make your plant run even more efficiently.

1. Sensor Selection

When looking to monitor changes in inventory, continuous level sensors will measure repeatedly over time to provide the most up-to-date information. These sensors are generally broken into two categories.

Non-contact sensors use technologies such as acoustic, radar, laser, and ultrasonic. The advantage of non-contact sensors is they do not intrude into the silo and do not physically contact the material. There is no risk of cables interfering with augers or other internal structures in the silo.

Cabled sensors, on the other hand, will have continuous or intermittent contact with the material. These include guided wave radar and weight-and-cable or bob-type sensors.

Both types are highly reliable when applied, installed, and maintained properly. Each technology has its place depending on the size of the vessel, the material being measured, the physical environment, and the relative cost of the sensor.

2. High-Level Alerts

Another type of sensor important to an inventory management system is a point level indicator. As the name implies, it detects and alerts when the material reaches a certain point in the silo. The most common point level indicators used in an inventory management system are rotaries, capacitance probes, and vibrating rods.

Point level indicators are a low-cost addition to silo equipment that can reap time and cost savings. They serve as a redundant alert when a silo is almost full. Preventing overfills saves time cleaning up messes, but more importantly protects the more expensive continuous level sensor at the top of the silo that might be damaged by an overfill.

Another role for a point level sensor is a low-level alert when the silo is almost empty. It lets you know inventory is running out before a process needs to be stopped. Although the continuous level sensor will be tracking inventory as it gets low, the point level sensor will ensure you are alerted to replenish before production is interrupted.

3. Wireless Options

Expensive wiring does not need to stand between you and an automated inventory management system. There are options to partially, or almost entirely, replace long spans of wire that run up installation costs.

One of the more common solutions is to daisy-chain a group of silos together in a ring. This wiring scheme allows multiple sensors to be wired together in a sequence to greatly reduce the amount of wiring needed. This allows a single wireless gateway to send level data for multiple sensors seamlessly to the cloud for processing. In large plants where there are multiple groups of sensors, daisy-chaining and gateways allow for an entire plant to be connected at a much lower expense than traditional wiring.

Antennas and wireless transceivers can also be used to span large distances. LoRa or long-range communications can be used for distances up to one mile with an unobstructed line of sight.

4. Remote Monitoring

With working from home a reality for many, remote monitoring is not a luxury, but a necessity. Even personnel still at the plant or office need access to inventory data in real-time. Plus, many people are responsible for locations across town or across the country.

Inventory management programs accessed from a corporate server, a website, or an app are easy to use and provide people across many functional areas of an organization the information they need to do their jobs. Many companies provide inventory access to production, logistics, purchasing, and financial groups simultaneously. When inventory information is self-service, current, and automated, personnel spend less time in meetings, sending emails, and on phone calls.

Many operations are asking their suppliers to tag-team in the ordering and delivery process. In this case, access to the plants’ silos is shared with the vendor. Vendor managed inventory lets plants and their suppliers work together sharing real-time data to keep the supply chain running smoothly.

After connecting level sensor data to the cloud, the next step is monitoring inventory using a secure website. There are many types of inventory monitoring programs emerging. Some are for specific industries or materials, while others can be used across a wide variety of industries, materials, and geography.

What is important is everyone involved is basing decisions on the same data at the same time. This leads to improvements in inventory turns, reduced safety stock, improved cash flow, increased profitability, and shorter lead times.

5. Local Data Access (Updated C-100 console)

During a busy workday repeatedly running to the office or a control room just is not feasible. Climbing a silo is even less desirable. Often production personnel wants a quick reading of what is in stock. Drivers want to know if an entire load will fit into a silo.

Adding a control console or a digital panel meter allows people to walk or drive up to a console installed at a convenient location. These compact and rugged devices can be configured to monitor one or many silos at the push of a few buttons. They provide silo levels in real-time and can display headroom (distance to the material) or the height of the material.

They work by programming the basic parameters such as silo height and diameter into the console. Users easily scroll through the silos associated with the console without walking to each individual silo. Consoles are compatible with sensors with a 4-20mA or Modbus output and easily integrate into an inventory management system or can be used as a standalone display.

6. Flow Detection (FD-2000)

Another feature to consider in your inventory management system are sensors to monitor flow. Distributors, chutes, and conveyors that move material into silos or from one process to another can become clogged, overfilled, or run empty. Plants that run multiple products need to be sure that the correct ingredients are fed into the process without cross-contamination.

A flow detection sensor detects flow or no-flow conditions. They are very sensitive and can detect minute amounts of the flow of the small granules or powders. Flow detection is important when changing from one ingredient to the other while processing in industries such as human or animal feed, chemical processing, or cement manufacturing.

Flow detectors can also alert if the material is not flowing through a chute or pipeline or if a conveyor has run empty. This could prevent material from being conveyed into a silo creating a material shortage or shutting down a process.

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