Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Getting the Grain on the Train

By Erik Lange, Vice President of Southern Operations

The 109-car train sits on the rail loop at the
Canton Rail Terminal.
On Sunday, December 28, MKC loaded our first shuttle at our Canton Grain Terminal.  The morning was sure a great morning to load our first shuttle as the temperature was slightly below freezing, the sun was shining and the winds were calm.

The 109-car train to be loaded pulled into our facility early Sunday morning as scheduled. The on-premise loop track has room for up to 120 boxcars at a time to carry grains farmers deliver to MKC to facilities in the Gulf Coast, Pacific Northwest and more. After BASF left the train, it was up to MKC to coordinate the whole train-loading process. When the empty shuttle train pulls into MKC’s rail loop, the locomotive is left there with the train.

Seven MKC employees and three employees from the Kansas Grain Inspection Service (KGIS) met onsite at 6 a.m. and held a 15-minute safety meeting to go over the plans for the day. After the safety meeting the group was out of the office on the chilly morning and undertook the first task of sealing the bottom hoppers of the 109 rail cars in our shuttle.  Because we want to guarantee the quality of our product and avoid losses of the grain in route to its final destination, we used numbered zip tie style seals and secured each hopper from tampering.  Each car has three hoppers so we used three seals on the bottom of each car. 

After just under an hour of sealing the bottoms of the cars, we maneuvered the train into position for loading the first car.  At approximately 8:15 a.m., we loaded our first draft into the first rail car. By 8:19 a.m. the first car, roughly 4,000 bushels of grain, was loaded.  This is where we hit our biggest glitch of our inaugural shuttle load.  When we went to advance to the next car, our software program had some settings that were not quite right.  But in under five minutes our computer software vendor had dialed into our system, changed the settings, and we were loading our next car.  After that, we loaded 108 more cars pretty much non-stop. Just shortly after 4 p.m. all 109 cars were completely loaded.

While this process sounds pretty simple so far, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes to get the cars filled.  The first part to a successful shuttle is knowing what you have where in your elevator.  As we filled the elevator with sorghum (milo) earlier this fall, every load was carefully graded for quality.  Specifically, different moisture and test weights were divided into different bins.  Additionally, any other factors that would result in less than a #2 sorghum was isolated into a blending bin separate from the ordinary sorghum. 

The next step in successfully loading the shuttle was to know exactly what the end customer is wanting.  Once you know what you have and what the customer wants, you have to figure out how to blend the commodity out of your facility.  In the case of this specific shuttle, we had seventeen different bins of sorghum to choose from to meet our customer’s needs.  When you are moving grain at over 60,000 bushels per hour into the rail cars, a small misjudgment of a blend can result in a big mess in a big hurry! (For example, if we would run grain for just one minute at the wrong blend we would have over 1,000 bushels of grain, slightly more than a standard semi-truck load of grain that does not meet the customer’s specification!) 

During the entire shuttle loading process, one employee is dedicated to running the elevator and adjusting the blend to make sure the grain stays on specification.  This employee is responsible for communicating with the employees from KGIS as well.  At our Canton Rail Terminal, this employee can control the blending at one of three places through our state of the art automation system used to control the facility - the main office, the truck unload control area/KGIS grading room, and the rail load-out control room.  This allows the employee to move throughout the facility and do their job and other tasks throughout the entire shuttle.  Primarily, this employee works from the truck unload control area as it makes communication with KGIS easy.

When the employee running the blend starts the grain stream, it flows out of the bins into a mixture of four possible grain legs elevating the grain into what is called the top garner.  If all four legs were utilized at 100 percent, the grain could flow as quickly as 100,000 bushels per hour into the top garner.  The top garner is roughly a 7,000 bushel bin that holds the grain until it can be weighed in the scale.  At this point, the employee responsible for loading the cars controls the entire process.  This employee sits in the rail loading control room and through the automation system has access to the scale controls and the elevator controls. This person also has radio communication with the person operating the train engine and the employees opening and closing the car lids.  Based upon this employee’s judgment, the entire process starts and stops.  This person works with the person operating the locomotive and instructs them on how far forwards or backwards to position each specific car.

As each specific car is pulled into place, a radio frequency identification (RFID) card on the specific rail car is read by the automation system.  This RFID card identifies the rail car to the terminal’s computer and pre-loads the net allowable weight of the specific car into the scaling system.  This allows the operator of the loading system to not have to enter any information about the car or the weights and saves a significant amount of time scaling the car. Once the car is in the correct place under the load out spout, the process of weighing six independent drafts of grain to fill the car begins. 

Kansas Grain Inspection Service staff are
onsite the duration of loading the shuttle.
The draft process is a very fast way of continually flowing grain into each rail car without having to shut the grain off in the elevator.  As the grain flows into the top garner bin from the legs, a hydraulic gate separates the grain in the top garner from the scale.  When the draft starts, the hydraulic gate opens and allows grain from the top garner to flow into the scale at over 10,000 pounds per second.  At approximately 30,000 pounds, the hydraulic gate begins to close automatically and once the scale has stabilized the draft is weighed.  Once the weight is recorded, a gate on the bottom of the scale opens automatically and the grain leaves the scale at over 10,000 pounds per second into the bottom garner.  Next the weighing process begins again.  Between the scale and the bottom garner there is also an automatic sampler set on a timer which is evenly pulling a representative sample at predetermined intervals.  These samples are then pneumatically conveyed to the KGIS lab for official grading. 

MKC employee  John Gagebein and Tracy
Spencer oversee the loading of milo atop of
the cars fastened to safety equipment
The bottom garner is the last step before the grain leaves the elevator through the rail loading spout into the rail car.  The bottom garner can hold two drafts.  If two drafts are in the bottom garner, the automation system will weigh a third draft and hold it until the bottom garner has enough room to hold the next draft.  If for some reason the car cannot be loaded for some time, there are sensors in the top garner that will automatically shut grown flow from the elevator off if a certain level is reached.  The elevator operator and the rail loader operator can both slow down or shut of the grain flow manually using the automation system.

At the bottom of the bottom garner is one last hydraulic gate manually controlled by the rail loader operator and can be opened or closed at any time to evenly fill the car as it is pulled through by the locomotive.  If all goes right, this process takes three to four minutes.  In those three to four minutes, 4,000 bushels of grain or about 224,000 pounds of grain has been moved from the elevator onto a rail car!

Gagebein closes the lids and attachees seals to
provide security for the cars being shipped.
As each independent car is pulled through, a MKC employee opens the lids of the cars as they approach the load out spout.  On the back side of the load out spout is a second employee closing the lids and attaching another three seals to provide security to the grain that has been loaded.  These two jobs are probably the most physically challenging as well as the most dangerous in the whole operation.  Both of these employees are tied off from above to the fall protection equipment to protect them from falling off the railcars.  These jobs are made more challenging as the train typically does not stop moving throughout the loading process so they are often working from a surface that starts and stops continuously.

The last employee on the crew is the locomotive operator.  This person has a critically important job of listening closely to commands from the rail loader operator and the rest of the crew to steadily move the locomotive while at the same time not being able to see what is happening at almost a mile behind them. 

MKC employee, Emily Jackson, was the conductor for the
inaugural load of grain shipped at our rail terminal in Canton.
When the team was all done loading the train, we parked the train as delivered and the railroad picked it up as they are able. Completed, MKC sent 400,000 bushels of sorghum to the Texas Gulf on our inaugural shuttle

While our first shuttle loading experience at MKC went very smooth and was completed in a very reasonable amount of time, there is always room for improvement.  Our goal is to make some small, easily controlled changes on the next shuttle, measure the effects, and then either adopt them or try additional changes with the final goal of any changes resulting in improving employee safety, improving employee efficiency, improving shuttle load time and providing additional profitability to our customer owners. The Canton Rail Terminal will continue to open up great opportunities and possibilities for MKC and our customers.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Helping Those in Need this Holiday Season

By Kerry Watson, Director of Communications

It's unfortunate to know there are people in our rural communities struggling to
meet the financial demands of day-to-day life. The unexpected need for a new coat or a parent's stress of wondering if their young child will get to experience the joy of opening a present at Christmas can be overwhelming.

Members of the MKC Community Involvement Committee helped eliminate some of this stress for nearly 400 families through their annual "Share the Warmth" and "Angel Tree" programs.

Started three years ago, the annual coat drive, "Share the Warmth", is held each October just as temperatures start to drop. Thanks to the generosity of employees, customers and community members, this year's coat drive netted 250 gently used and new coats. Caps, gloves and scarves were also collected.

MKC's Angel Tree program was also started three years ago. According to Kaila Armendariz, member of the Community Involvement Committee, 150 children ranging in age newborn to 14 years old were adopted by employees.

"The generosity of our customers and employees has been amazing," stated Armendariz. "It feels good to give back to our communities, helping those in need."

The Community Involvement Committee extends their appreciation to everyone who contributed to these projects.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Five Tips for Winterizing Heavy-Duty Diesel Engines

With cold weather upon us, learn what steps you should take to prepare your vehicles for winter.
Tip 1: Treat the fuel.
When preparing your fleet or ag equipment for winter, one of the most commonly overlooked items is the fuel itself. Fuel needs to be winterized, especially if the equipment will be used throughout the winter.
Paraffin wax is present in all diesel fuels as a natural lubricity agent. Like any wax, as the ambient temperature of the fuel drops, the wax begins to form large square-shaped structures. These can come out of suspension and cause fuel to gel, which clogs the fuel filter.
To prevent gelling, use a cold-flow improver (CFI) that includes de-icers and wax anti-settling agents, which extend the operability of the fuel. But don’t overtreat. Additional treatments of CFI are more likely to inhibit the fuel’s performance than help.
A second option is to use a diesel fuel specially formulated for low temperatures, such as Cenex winterized premium diesel fuels. Cold-flow improvers, de-icers and wax anti-settling agents are included in the additive packages for these fuels.
Tip 2: Drain the water separator and replace filters.
Water in the fuel system can reduce engine performance and damage components like fuel pumps and injectors. Avoid these issues by replacing water-absorbing filters and draining the water separator regularly. Fuel gelling can be an issue, but it’s water turning to ice in fuel storage tanks and filtration that typically plugs filters during the first couple of cold snaps.
Fill fuel and hydraulic oil tanks full to prevent condensation from forming during temperature and humidity changes.
Tip 3: Check the coolant system.
Regular preventive maintenance will reveal any issues before they become major problems. Check for radiator leaks, plugged or hardened hoses, and cracked belts. Tighten any loose hose clamps. Check coolant levels and antifreeze strength.
Tip 4: Prepare the Battery
Old Man Winter can drain batteries quickly. If a battery is close to the end of a typical 48- to 72-month cycle, replace it. Clean battery terminals and be sure connections are tight. If equipment will be stored over the winter, disconnect battery ground cables to prevent battery drain.
Tip 5: Clean and inspect the exterior.
Use a high-pressure washer to remove dirt, dust and residue, and grease unpainted metal parts to protect them from the elements. Then apply a wax to the surface, which will help repel snow, salt and road chemicals. Use a lanolin-based spray-on protectant to prevent rust and corrosion.