We spoke with Paul Coveny, Cane/Fuel Supply Manager at New South Wales Sugar Milling Co-operative Ltd. about the challenges facing the industry and the efficiencies resulting from implementing digital technologies and online processes.
The NSW Sugar Milling Co-operative Ltd was formed when cane growers purchased the three NSW sugar mills from CSR in 1978. These mills are still running in their original locations, while a sugar refinery also operates as part of a joint venture. They source their product from roughly 400 suppliers, with about 300 direct employees and 150 indirect employees. NSW Sugar have provided comprehensive information on the sugar industry in NSW at their website.
What general challenges has the sugar industry been facing in NSW?
The weather has been our greatest opponent in recent times. We’ve had 4 floodings in the last 3 years, with the last one being as recent as February. For that reason alone the biggest challenge is getting our crops healthy.
What digital technologies has NSW Sugar been adopting to improve processes?
We have one major customer, which means we have to be very elastic in our response to their needs. We upgraded our full dispatch system to electronic, with all dispatches from the refinery now being uploaded online. This allows a significant improvement in transparency and efficiency.
Receiving product from 400 suppliers we need to have strong systems in place to track, record and report our operations. Prior to 1999 we managed our consignments with a paper ticketing system, which was then upgraded to an automated radio system. Since 2008 we’ve been using a new system which runs on a Telstra connectivity platform, which greatly simplifies and eases the management of our busy consignment network.
We now use the NEXTG network to track our consignments via GPS. Our transport scheduling system runs just-in-time, and we have a truck in the yard practically every 5 minutes. This simply wouldn’t work without the capability of the GPS systems. Not only does it provide us with valuable information for running our production process, but it has also been very useful in a number of legal cases against us where we could provide data from the machines to prove we were not culpable. All of our members have individual logins to a secure website, meaning they can access a delivery analysis from the moment it’s delivered, when the information is immediately uploaded to the web servers.
We also operate over 120 devices on our property that are completely dependent on wireless. This means we can be mobile and connected across our work at all times. We do however rely on our service provider to continue offering the services we require; the transfer to 3G was a very costly process.
So it would be safe to say these technology capabilities have created efficiencies and cost savings?
Definitely. Prior to our GPS systems we were running 17 trucks. We now run 12 trucks to do the same job. Certain sites have been able to reduce their staff base from 12 to 5 members, given the new efficiencies. Our production output has been on the decline, so being able to gain on these initiatives is important to stay competitive.
What other initiatives do you predict or would you like to see in the near future?
We would love to see a way for farmers and industry to share our resources and help each other out. We have extremely useful and expensive equipment sitting idle for 6 months of the year. Right now I have 31 touch-screen consignment units sitting idle, which are essentially high-end computers that could be utilised for a whole range of purposes. We also have 34 prime-movers sitting idle which are no use to anyone while they’re sitting in a yard.
With the connectivity available through the internet and the NBN, surely there is a way for us to share our resources and provide benefits for everyone in the industry. There are already great examples through the Agricultural Labour Pool, which is an online database of skilled agricultural workers which can be drawn upon when needed.
Are there any other limitations currently holding back agriculture industries?
There is a lot of resistance to online and digital technology in the farming community. A lot of our growers still prefer to receive documents by fax and they just don’t see the value in moving over to digital. Trying to get these people to catch up is a huge challenge. Inherent in this problem is often an age-gap, where the older generations managing the farms are averse to the changes. This comes in hand with the other challenge of attracting younger generations to farming industries, who will help fuel the growth of new technologies.
Any advice for others in the industry who want to progress with their digital technology and connectivity?
You just have to do it. We made the decision to move to web-based delivery of reports to growers. We didn’t have any direct interaction from the growers on this decision. We made the systems available and put the onus on the grower to retrieve their information themselves. We can’t wait for everyone to adapt or we could be waiting forever. As I mentioned before, we also need to form alliances and make the most of each others’ knowledge and resources.