Technology can help answer: ‘What’s best?’

THE odds are that many of you carry a smartphone and use it on a daily basis to check the weather, communicate with colleagues, family and friends around the world through video and text messaging or play the occasional game. Every so often, we may even use them to make a phone call.

This device is more powerful than any computer that existed in 1970. It is, in fact, millions of times more powerful than the combined computing power of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) in 1969. It is amazing to think that a team of engineers used a fraction of the computing power we hold in our hands to guide a space mission.

Over the past several years, many of us have had the unique opportunity to get to know feed industry legend Bob Brill. Much has been said about his well-deserved reputation and the impact he has made on the feed industry.

We recently had a conversation with Brill. After you read this, we would love to hear your answers to the questions we asked him, as well as what some of the biggest challenges are that you face in the industry and how technology could solve those problems.

Q. You started your career with IBM. Tell us a bit about your role there and how you got started working with the feed industry?

A. IBM hired me as a part of their staff that helped clients use computer time with the hope of building up the usage so these clients would then purchase a computer. A premix company named Amburgo was located in Philadelphia, Pa., where I worked. They called IBM and asked IBM to send over someone familiar with feed formulation. I was a mathematician who had some linear programming knowledge, so I was asked to visit Amburgo and meet with Dr. Hal Yakowitz, who was a renowned poultry nutritionist. He and, later, Corwin Knesteric told me what they wanted, and I generated the software to provide the least-cost solutions. Soon thereafter, other northeastern feed companies started using the computer service from IBM.

Q. What were some of the biggest technological challenges you and the industry faced early on when building and deploying least-cost formulation solutions?

A. The “timesharing” solution that IBM offered in the early 1970s allowed any user to inexpensively have access to least-cost formulation capabilities. Before this service, the client had to spend a lot of money to buy a large computer to do this application. As a result, many more users could afford to have the capability that was previously available to only the very large companies. The big drawback was the quality and cost of telephone services. Soon thereafter, mini-computers were available for purchase. This allowed my own firm to sell computers and software to companies, and these solutions were available to companies around the world. This solution provided unlimited use and eliminated the telephone problems.

Q. How did businesses and people respond to using technology for least-cost formulation? Was there fear or excitement about using the tools?

A. Companies were excited about the affordability and the immediate access of the new technology. However, since many of the new users of the low-cost technology did not have the laboratories and/or staffs to validate the results of the changing formulas, there was some resistance to using “least-cost” formulas out of fear that the new formulas might not perform as well, but the cost savings helped to overcome the initial fears. Previously, the formulas did not change very often.

Q. It has been said that your work revolutionized the feed industry through cost savings. What would you say has been the biggest impact that technology has made in the industry?

A. I believe the greatest impact of the feed formulation software was the ability for the industry to evaluate “the alternatives.” The software allowed the user to try different ideas and see if the idea was a “good one.” This could be related to the introduction of a new ingredient or the limitation of existing alternatives. It also allowed a user to evaluate the cost/ benefi t of a nutritional constraint. In effect, the software allowed each company to determine what was best for them and their market.

Q. Are people and businesses utilizing technology to its fullest potential today? What are ways businesses today could take better advantage of emerging technology?

A. From what I can tell, one of our biggest challenges today is to evaluate the combination of various technologies to arrive at (the answer to) “What is best?” There is so much information related to various tasks, and we have become very good at doing each task. However, we must now focus on improving the overall performance or costs related to the entire operation. For example, in a few areas that I am quite familiar with, we have dramatically improved the accuracy of the NIR (nearinfrared) machines as a result of better hardware and better “calibrations,” so we can be pretty sure that the nutrient analysis of a sample analyzed by an NIR machine is as good as what one gets in the laboratory — and we have gotten very good at determining the nutrient requirements of the animal as well as determining the least-cost diet. However, we must improve integration of the information so that the least-cost feed system knows what the latest nutrient analysis of the ingredients is and that the growth of the animal is consistent with the models, etc.

Q. If you could wave a magic wand and instantly create a new piece of technology for the industry, what would it be, and how would it impact businesses?

A. Technology that validates what we believe is happening would have a great impact on business. Today, we want to believe that new formulas are put to use immediately. We want to believe that animals are growing as expected. We want to believe that our formulation systems are using the current prices and nutritional values of the ingredients. We want to believe that we are selling our chickens, pigs, etc., at the highest profit, etc. Two areas that would benefit this are “big data” applications and combining information from many specialties into one “what-if” solution. Big data would allow us, in the industry, to find factors that influence the results by analyzing many results. It could, in effect, allow us to find the answers to questions we didn’t know we should ask. Combining specialties brings forth a world of possibilities for the industry. For example, the effect of a change in the samples generated by an NIR system could be used on the least-cost solutions generated in a feed formulation system. It would be easy to see the effect of a new feed on the expected growth of a chicken or how to price the parts of the animal you are selling based upon the information you have related to the growth of the current animals. Feed approvals could be implemented to make sure they are done quickly and properly so the needed feeds are put into use as soon as possible. This could also be extended to delivery logistics to see if approved feeds are really put into use. In order to easily get a “better” result, one must be able to integrate the use of several of the applications, since the cost for any one company to create all of the applications would be very expensive and disruptive for the end users to “switch” suppliers of software just to be able to get the needed answers.

Final thoughts

We take for granted the power available to us through mobile computing. Combine this with the overwhelming amount of data that can be used to answer the question “What is best?” and one quickly realizes that this is a largely untapped area of great potential. This thought should be both sobering and exciting. With the right imagination in asking bold questions and being willing to step outside of what has always worked, industry leaders will emerge. In our conversation, Brill said several times that “we want to believe.” What are the assumptions or dreams you want to believe in your business? How are those assumptions being challenged, tested and verified? What bold question are you waiting to ask? Remember, you hold in your pocket more computing power than NASA used for a lunar mission. Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” It’s our hope that imagination and data come together for your business.

Article written by Peter Schott and Randy Schwalke

*Peter Schott is co-founder of Genesis Feed Technologies, providing innovative technology solutions for feed businesses. He is also an advisor for Feed Marketing LLC, an advisory firm owned by Randy Schwalke providing a wide range of business advisory services for the feed industry.

© 2018 Feedstuffs. Reprinted with permission from Vol. 90, No. 02, Date, 2018

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