Staying a ‘cut’ ahead

How Midwest Fabrication, a Queensland-based manufacturer of grain harvesting equipment, grew from building the first machine for their own farm to gaining national recognition for their products in just over two decades is the material great Aussie success stories are made of.

Martin Schutt, a second-generation grain farmer started Midwest on his family farm north of Moonie in Queensland. After purchasing his first combine harvester in 1998, Martin was frustrated with the performance of the imported cutting platforms and thought he could improve the design to gain better efficiencies in the field.

Starting from a basic sketch drawn around the kitchen table, the Schutt family were able to develop their first cutting platform in the workshop and test it in the field. The platform soon received national recognition from the contract harvesting community for its simple and efficient design. Orders started pouring in forcing the business to relocate to Dalby to be able to meet the increasing demands.

The company is renowned for its innovation winning multiple awards including Best New Innovation Award, Best Australian Agricultural Machine, Best Manufacturing Business and Business of the Year.
Martin says Midwest was the first manufacturer in the world to build a 12 metre (40 ft) front in 1998, and the 15 metre fronts followed a decade later. The advancements in innovation continue to set the standards and benchmark leading the world in grain harvesting technology now producing a whopping 18.3 metre (60 ft) harvest front, another world first.

But Midwest Fabrication’s innovations did not stop there. Over the years, the company has grown its range of draper platforms to suit different applications and fit all major combine harvester brands. Additionally, the company also produces a wide range of accessories and spare parts for its cutting platforms, including cutting knives specially designed for Australian farming conditions.

Midwest’s sole goal is to help increase harvesting efficiency for farmers and contact harvesters while reducing overheads and running costs. The wider drapers mean customers are working their harvesters to maximum capacity, saving time, fuel costs and receiving better return on their investments.

Midwest Fabrication has built a highly successful Australia wide dealer network consisting of 92 Agricultural dealers supporting our product nationally and are currently in the process of developing a one-acre factory in Dalby to bring its engineering and manufacturing facilities under one roof.
Martin believes such a rapid growth by a family business would not have been possible without dedication to continuous improvement and innovation.

“It’s only through constant improvement and being innovative that we’ve been able to achieve what we have achieved. Ever since we built our first unit, we’ve been up against some of the largest global agricultural machinery manufacturers; but through constant innovation, we’ve been able to remain ahead of the competition.

Over the past 16 years, Midwest Fabrication has been working with CBC Australia – as the largest supplier of bearings and industrial parts in Australia – to source components for its in-house designed products.

Martin says the collaboration with CBC has enabled Midwest Fabrication to refine its products further, making them more efficient and durable.

“We are continually improving the mechanical design of our products. In one example, CBC helped us replace the original four-band ‘B’ type v-belts on the main drive with the Gates high-strength Predator belts, and more recently we improved the design again and introduced the Gates Polychain carbon belts, providing a more efficient, quieter and cooler running drive belt.”

Warren Beale, CBC’s Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) manager for Queensland, says apart from being a key supplier, CBC also offers engineering and design supports to Midwest Fabrication where required.

“After so many years of working with Midwest Fabrication and holding regular meetings to understand their requirements, we now have a very clear understanding of the products they need each harvest season. This allows CBC to maintain the right stock level for Midwest Fabrication to meet its requirements when their demand is at its peak.

“Additionally, we also help them with engineering support and application-specific information. This might be helping with product improvements as it was in the case of the Gates Polychain belt upgrades or suggesting alternative components to make the designs lighter and more efficient,” he says.
Commenting on winning the Gold prize for Motion Asia Pacific’s Let’s Roll: Australian Business Awards 2020, Martin says the win is a result of hard work put forward by the team, as much as a result of engineering excellence and innovation.

“This award is also a recognition of our staff’s skills, their dedication to the business and their pride in their workmanship. If not for them, we would not be here today,” says Martin.

“As business owners, it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day running and focussing on keeping the wheels turning and not celebrate the successes when they come along. This recognition is a great reminder for us to reflect on what we have built over the years from that sketch around the kitchen table, our significant growth, and the exciting future ahead of Midwest.”

Midwest Fabrication is a Gold Award winner at the Let’s Roll: Australian Business Awards 2020. To learn more about the Awards, click here

An intuitive shift towards greater automation

Automation and remote operations are on the move. Nowhere was this more clear than at our recent Rockwell Automation On The Move – a unique event where from 3-4 March we saw 119 customers attend 15 breakout sessions in Auckland, New Zealand, engaging with new trends, new technology and each other.

It was truly a hands-on experience where customers apply the latest automation and remote operations technology to a business problem, with the support of an experienced technician, working along with their team. It was a chance to demystify Industry 4.0 and the reality of what automation and IT/OT convergence can mean for businesses – making it real for customers.

Increased demand for automation
This is critical and becoming more important with each passing day. Businesses want to get to market quicker. They want to know how they can leverage data better to improve productivity and sustainability.

Then there’s the challenge of accelerating learning. Many knowledgeable veterans will retire. At the same time, younger generations change jobs more readily and businesses are struggling to find people who want to live and work in harsh or remote conditions.

Coronavirus is encouraging some companies to explore increased automation solutions and remote operations due to the challenges posed to business operations. A lot of customers, partners and engineers are unable to go onto site right now. I expect this to change the way we think about how we can run plants effectively without people onsite.

Many challenges aren’t different – but the technology is
While COVID-19 may be the latest and greatest threat, many of the challenges businesses face today are no different to 20 years ago. Businesses want to know how to get information to decision makers in a timely way, particularly when many IT systems do not interface easily with one another.

It was hard to correlate or find manufacturing trends. There was too much data that took too much time to retrieve and was not real-time. We built custom, costly and complicated one-sided solutions.

With the arrival of Industry 4.0, the tech has accelerated, and we can do things differently. Digitalisation is the next quantum leap in terms of trying to get more done with your systems.

The convergence of IT and OT can help us make sense of as much data as is available and process it in a timely way. Machine learning can assist with automation and spotting trends, and augmented reality (AR) can support accelerated learning, remote training and enhanced operator experience.

AR has pass through the hype phase and is now part of the mainstream. It’s allowing the overlay of the digital and the physical worlds. This includes both being able to visualise and move around a machine that isn’t physically there and being able to overlay a physical machine with an AR visualisation, which can support training and maintenance.

Behind this shift lies the fact that sensors have come down in price, computing power has gone through the roof, latency has reduced, cloud computing has now become pervasive in our lives and cybersecurity has become top of mind.

Whereas in the past we saw that many IT projects tended not to fail because of tech but because of issues with adoption and understanding, usability and user experience are now becoming a primary objective of many solutions – and that will allow more successful projects. A lot of the tech is becoming configurable and open.

What this means is that businesses can now make sense of as much data that is available and process it in real-time to make decisions that can change the way a business is run, instead of waiting until it’s too late. It means more efficient maintenance and training. This is reducing downtime, while increasing productivity, agility and speed to market.

Getting started
Technology may have become increasingly intuitive but getting started isn’t always as easy. When getting beginning your journey towards Industry 4.0, consider the following: what data you want to connect, how you can make solutions repeatable, use machine learning or predictive analytics to analyse trends and retrieve insights, how you will deliver relevant insights to those who need them in a consumable way, and what happens when you do spot something unusual or interesting.

Try to strike the right balance between off-the-shelf and customised solutions. Prioritise solutions that are repeatable from an infrastructure perspective but which offers an over the top user experience fits what you need.

Platforms such as Rockwell Automation’s Factory Talk Innovation Suite™, which has PTC technology inside, includes specific applications around remote monitoring, creating digital twins with AR/VR, and an IoT platform that extends to Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and predictive maintenance to support productivity, sustainability and integrated supply chain solutions.

These extensible platforms allow you to tap into a range of in-built applications relevant to your needs today – and position you to add in those which might become useful down the line.

Then get started. Don’t worry about gold plating it from the start. See what works and what doesn’t. Find a balance. Iterate. With the help of this remarkable technology we can get through this latest crisis and come out stronger on the other side.