The events of the past few years have brought the importance of food security into sharp focus.
GRAINTECH designs, custom manufactures and installs equipment that helps agribusinesses grow and process seed and grain more efficiently.
“Current estimates are that the world needs to produce 70 per cent more food to keep up with population growth by 2050. With the reduction in arable land, farmers must achieve higher yields from what they sow,” says GRAINTECH CEO Nick Smith. “Our drive for innovation is to ensure our technology aids in increasing yields and seed and grain quality.”
GRAINTECH manufactures its seed and grain processing equipment portfolio at its headquarters in Ballarat, Victoria and is the exclusive agent for two European brands. Its primary customer base is in Australia and New Zealand, but it also exports to the Americas, Europe, and South Africa.
The company was experiencing a nice-to-have problem, with no shortage of orders and not enough capacity to fulfil them.
“Our order book is incredibly full, and the potential for more is substantial,” says Smith. “We’ve invested heavily in technology to make us a high-quality yet efficient manufacturer, enabling us to cater to the market opportunities that come to us. Our commitment to customers is our topmost priority.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, GRAINTECH’s senior executives and experts had to travel to customer sites, whether the company was installing a single machine, designing an entire greenfield site, or making a service call. It was expensive and created bottlenecks in GRAINTECH’s operations.
The key to a successful manufacturing business, apart from innovative technologies, is to have the right and skilled workforce. COVID made the availability of skilled people a scarce resource.
“COVID forced GRAINTECH to reassess how we did things,” Smith recalls. “We asked ourselves, do we need to invest this much in travel?
“Our annual travel spend was phenomenally high and generated a huge carbon footprint.”
Mixed reality tech enables remote consultations
Early in 2021, GRAINTECH started working with Microsoft partner Velrada to understand how mixed reality technology could help it reduce its reliance on travel and in-person consultations.
“We worked with GRAINTECH in consultation with some of its customers to see how they could use our Mixed Reality as a Managed Service and Microsoft HoloLens devices to do on-site consultations,” says Dan Hookham, Chief Innovation Officer at Velrada.
“During COVID, when people couldn’t travel, GRAINTECH had implemented Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams to enable remote working and collaboration. Used to that way of working, integrating mixed reality and HoloLens devices was relatively straightforward.”
Microsoft HoloLens, allows a local technician or a customer to have a live, interactive Microsoft Teams call with one of the GRAINTECH experts. The expert gets a live, realistic view of the equipment or the crop under discussion while the local person remains hands-free so they can interact with their environment. The expert can share machinery schematics, virtual training guides and data, allowing the local person to fulfil the physical role of the expert without needing the expert on-site.
“While we were initially sceptical of the idea, we realised that once someone gets the HoloLens headset on and becomes comfortable with it, it becomes a real asset,” says Smith.
“Velrada were super responsive in assisting us when required,” he says. “Their product knowledge was excellent, and they had a real can-do attitude.”
GRAINTECH estimates it will reduce carbon emissions by 68 per cent, employing Microsoft HoloLens and reducing travel spending drastically.
Reduced travel and ‘rock star’ customer service
The mixed reality technology has made it easier for GRAINTECH’s experts to consult on-site issues. The improved speed of product installation, maintenance and problem resolution has boosted GRAINTECH’s customer satisfaction.
One of the core machines GRAINTECH manufacture is the patented batch seed coater. This machine can film treat or pellet/encrust various seed types with pesticides, inoculants, and biologicals which aid with seed germination.
“One of our service technicians was on a site doing preventive maintenance. He put the HoloLens on and caught up with one of the senior commissioning experts. In a three-minute call, he made a quick coating recipe adjustment.
“Because the technician had a HoloLens with him, it was like being in the same room, allowing them to make the change easily.
The adjustment increased the customer’s yield by 35 per cent. Now they think we’re rockstars,” says Smith.
GRAINTECH has equipped all its service offices with HoloLens devices and has recently made the mixed reality service a standard part of its offering for each new plant it builds.
“We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg of what we can do with mixed reality – not just for our business but so many other businesses. We recently worked with a client and supported them in doing a crop inspection. In the middle of a paddock with a HoloLens, their high-level agronomist didn’t need to travel to the site to do a relatively quick task,” says Smith.