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CEO Corner: More handy than hands – the automation of your dreams is coming

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 18 July 2017

Editor's note: The CEO Corner contains editors' compilations of business news from top publications, which they have tailored for the dairy industry.

Don’t tell me you’ve never done this before: It’s a blistering day and you’re standing in the farm store parking lot. You ran into town because you just needed that one part to fix a pump or a gate. Now you cannot find your truck keys … until you look through your locked driver’s side window to see them patiently waiting for you on the seat or in the cup holder.

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You think, “If only ‘they’ would come up with a way so my truck would know it’s me that makes the payments and open up already!”

That elusive “they” that you want working to solve your problems and simply your life has been hard at work. And we’re about to cross the next frontier in tech to solve your dairy’s annoying and even profit-draining problems.

A recent article from McKinsey & Company suggests the next frontiers for automation breakthrough are soon to arrive. The consulting group’s article, “A CEO action plan for workplace automation” by Michael Chui, Katy George and Mehdi Miremadi, discusses five different frontiers where automation could have its biggest impact.

“We are on the cusp of a new age of automation. … The pace of technological progress, propelled by massive increases in computing power and cloud storage, suggests the next frontier will soon be crossed,” the authors write.

The article challenges CEOs and business leaders to envision how automation could enable their businesses to make bolder moves as these frontiers arrive. I’ve done some tech-dreaming to get you thinking about what the arrival of these new frontiers might mean for your dairy.

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Each of the five is discussed below with my suggestions as to how those frontiers could manifest themselves in the dairy industry.

Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will help you …

Get closer to customers

Imagine a mom sitting at McDonald’s, half-watching her kids play on the indoor playground. With the rest of her concentration, she’s shopping on her phone. Facebook pushes her an alert to inform her: “The cow that gives you milk is being milked right now.”

This is one way in which automation will most likely put farmers and their cows closer to consumers. Consider that each of your cows might have their own social media handle and post regular updates to consumer-followers’ feeds when their RFID tag is scanned in the parlor.

I’ve previously written about how computer vision technology could change how you dairy. This frontier of automation follows exactly in line with those previously suggested ideas.

Improve operations

Imagine a rugged, nearly invisible weigh-scale that sits underneath each of the commodity bins in your feed mixing yard. Rather than a dairy manager checking how much feed is in each bin in the morning and calling for a load of this or that, the weigh-scale is linked to the internet and emails a feed order based on your predefined specifications. The scale would get better over time in ordering than even your best dairy manager. This method is called machine-learning and will likely be coming to your dairy someday.

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Optimize knowledge work

We’ve already seen a few of these technologies approaching the dairy industry. Body condition score cameras and sort gates when used in combination with herd databases can perform rule-based tasks, such as create a pen full of cows ready for a health check or hoof trimming. Automation is probably further away from actually doing the herd check or trimming cows’ hooves (although I wouldn’t say this is impossible), but it can help make finishing the task easier. I think the dairy industry is just barely beginning to see this kind of robotic power emerge.

Harness the power of nature

You’ve likely seen this frontier approach your dairy already. Mini weather stations on a farm can already sense weather conditions on-site and close curtains when a cold wind blows through or switch on fans when the heat of the day kicks in. Imagine a more powerful version of this mini weather station. This version will track growing conditions (heat, humidity, precipitation, etc.) in your dairy’s crop fields and calculate in real time the estimated size of your end-of-season harvest. Don’t believe it’s possible? The McKinsey article says Coca-Cola is already doing it with the oranges grown for its orange juice brand.

Increase scale and speed

This final frontier for automation may first come to the genetics aspect of the industry. We’ve all recently experienced how genomics was a game changer. Well, what if each farm had a computer constantly running simulations about semen selection to optimize each mating based on your herd’s breeding goals. This should be possible in the forthcoming, more automated dairy industry.

As the McKinsey article says: “The potential for A.I.-enabled automation to create scale, boost throughput and eliminate errors creates a range of opportunities.”

In general, new automation should be making your dairy work faster – not bog it down and make it slower. If automation is making it slower, you’re not using it right and the authors I’ve quoted suggest you rethink how it’s being used. They conclude, “Extracting value from automation often entails redesigning entire processes, not just automating individual components of the process.”

So the good news is that new automation to decrease dependence on entry-level labor and increase overall efficiency is getting better than a sci-fi novel. The bad news is that currently for most truck owners, unless you own a Ford F-150 King Ranch edition, which I argue has redesigned the truck you drive into a mobile office, you still have to remember to take your truck keys with you into the farm store.  end mark

PHOTO: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

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