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FlowconSales-Info. Sales_Questions

Sales Questions

These questions are a compilation from over the years.
If you have another, contact
sales@Flowcon.us and we'll do our best.
Thanks for considering Flowcon, where our goal is to make it painless for you .

Operator Interface:

Q: How much of the process is displayed, and how does it indicate alarms ?
Every input and output is graphically displayed, using character graphics and color where desirable. Not only does it simplify following the details, it quickly draws attention to alarms through the use of urgent colors and flashing status.

Q: Is there an operator panel to override problems, or see exactly what is happening?
There is a "soft" manual panel screen, where every output can be manually overridden, and every input is displayed. Every scale or totalizer value is shown, so the operator can take corrective action, or override any process step. The ingredient in error is flagged, and the target and actual amounts are clearly shown, so the operator does not need to refer to other documentation. Bump in a measured amount of material with a single tap on the ingredient key.   Analyze any failure by observing every indicator and activating individual controls.


Controlling the Batch Weighing:

Q: How do you indicate the weighing sequence of the ingredients?
Each scale process searches for the first ingredient that is assigned to it. If the process allows, scales start weighing as soon as they are available. The ingredient weigh sequence follows the ration order.

Q: How are "process commands" included among the ingredients in the formulation ?
While most operations are determined by your equipment configuration, it is useful to have certain steps that can be inserted among the ingredients as control instructions, like opening the scale or mixer early, mixing between ingredients, delaying for other process steps to complete, running a leveling auger, etc. -- as a specific sequence for just that formula.

Q: How do you treat ingredients that are not weighed automatically, or that need to be hand-added to the process at a later step?
"Not-weighed"  ingredients are calculated and printed as a desired amount. An operator will add this material into the batch by a step unknown to the system.
"Hand-add" ingredients can be prompted and monitored at a remote weighing station, but they are usually held, and dumped into the mixer when the system illuminates a hand add lamp. The operator adds the batch, and so indicates with a button push, which cancels the request light, and releases the process to continue.


Finish Feed and Routing:

Q: Describe full routing control on a system with finish feed storage.
Full routing control waits for the last ration to purge through the system, moves the destination gates / turn-heads, confirms all augers/belts are on and proofed, and dumps product holding at the mixer -- into the surge for routing to the new destination. If there are other steps needed, they are added where appropriate. Monitoring for high bin levels can either cause an automatic switch in routing for the next batch, automatically terminate this run of batches, or alarm an operator and wait for intervention. 

Q. What if my controls are not installed, can I still get monitoring?
Sometimes a new installation may not have the automatic controls in place. You can simply leave the outputs disconnected, and connect them as you install equipment at a later time. When an output needs to change, the operator can manually route to match the request indicator. When the system finds that the limits match the request, it will automatically continue. If a routing request times out, the operator will receive an alarm.

Q: What routing scenarios are available?
Full automatic control; manual control with fully monitored inputs; and an operator alert of a new routing requirement, with an automatic process hold for the operator to complete the routing and verify it is complete, and available for the mixer to dump (or the surge auger to start).


Managing Data:

Q: Can you print batch tickets?
We can add a ticket printer showing, time and date, product names measured, quantities delivered, discharge location and the name of the operator.

Q: Can you save all batch information on the hard drive for use by a host system?
These tickets can be saved on the hard drive to allow for future reprints if needed, or for use by a host system.

Q. Can we change what reports print on a daily basis ?
The system file allows you to configure almost any combination of reporting. As your needs change, you can modify those parameters to change what prints. We automatically print every alarm, and can log any operator manual overrides of ingredient filling to the hard drive, for later monitoring.

Extra printers can be added for special printouts that are torn off and used by operators. We also save batch information on the hard drive for 30 days, and if not used, it is overlaid automatically without any operator intervention.

The end of day reports are also saved on the hard drive, and any day in the last 30 can be requested at any time.

Q: Can we keep full inventory for some ingredients, and simple usage data for others ?
Each ingredient can keep inventory by usage only; actual inventory on hand (target, actual, difference and delta %), or by tracking the moisture, and keeping a dry weight record.

Q: I make single loads, which dump to a truck. How do I move my bunkreader data to the batcher?
The manual shows the format of the data to electronically transfer calls to the batcher stack. Lextron's bunkreader works, and several others do as well. The transfer uses a spare serial port on the batcher.

Q: Can the operator override the entrys from the bunkreader?
An operator can change or hold any ration at any time. As long as a ration has not not already started weighing, he can edit the entry. All inactive entries can be moved, deleted, edited or added in front of with new ones. Our BLOCK MOVE lets you mark and move many entries to another part of the stack.

Q: I am using 150-175 custom blends, and need to make daily changes
We have operational systems using over 2000 blends and 2000 ingredients. The customer may add, edit, print or delete parameters at any time, even while batching.

Q: I need rations of different sizes. How can I do this from one master ration?
If you create a 1000# master ration (feedmills say "formula", feedyards say "ration", others call it a "blend"), the batch size multiplier in your production list will allow you to specify a batch of unlimited size within a 10# increment. All referenced ingredients will automatically re-size to the final batch size.

Q: If I enter the total amount of feed I need, what values does the system use to figure out the number of batches and the optimal batch size?
Respecting the largest batch size you allow in the formula header, it divides the total by an even number of equal batches. Alternately, you can specify the number of batches, and let the system default to a batch size.

Q. Can data files be read by a host system?
Yes. See the page of data formats on this WEB site.
The next question addresses use of Windows networking for accessing data.

Q. Will your DOS application run under Windows. What versions, and why would I need it?
It runs fine under Windows 98SE or ME. It adds complexity to keeping the computer running, but the advantage, is you can put it on a network to retrieve the data files as the system runs. You can also remotely replace the program while running. The new version will load on a re-start. We have a number of systems that do this effectively. It does add much complexity to keeping it running 24/7. DOS based is super reliable, while still giving you a graphical style display. 


System Hardware:

Q. What Scale Indicators do you supply?
We use scale indicator(s), from Rice Lake Weighing Systems. Currently we use a NEMA 4 Stainless unit (IQ355) with a microprocessor calibration sequence. They are highly reliable and very reasonably priced. We find that most if not all scale companies are familiar with these units.

Q. Where is the electrical control relay panel located?
The control relay panel is usually located near the computer system, since it is handy to have them together for diagnostics. Or it can be located in the relay room, several hundred feet away.  We use a steel, NEMA rated enclosure that is typically 2' x 3' by 8" deep. Ideal mounting is wall mounted at a visual level. It contains all of the OPTO-22 relays, the screw attachment points for the AC control wires, an AC fuse, a disconnect switch, a pilot light, a power supply, and wire way for the control wiring.

Q. Do you recommend an electrical switch box to a existing system controls?
Absolutely. While the batch system provides full manual control of every relay, your electrician should preserve your manual station, by providing toggle switches to individually select between the Flowcon outputs and your manual controls. These toggles can easily fit in a 12" x 12" box. Inputs can go to multiple locations without any isolation.  We provide documentation for methods which allow for any line to be switched away from the Flowcon for testing or service.
Use of a manual panel switch which has a Manual / OFF / Auto position is an even better solution. Any method that provides a positive disconnect between the manual and the automatic outputs is desirable.

Q. Can Remote terminals be supported?
Absolutely. They take a number of forms, depending on your needs, from a simple remote display/keyboard for data entry, to a loader mounted laptop with a radio link.

Q. Do you supply a surge protector and un-interruptible power supply?
We provide a 450 watt Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) from TripLite, intended to hold up the system through momentary power glitches or for 5-10 minutes while you do an orderly shut down. We don't usually provide a surge protector (but we could), since the UPS does some of that, and because our optically isolated relays and scales have eliminated most problems. If you use an outlet strip to expand your plug-ins, Those usually have some form of surge protection as well.


Installation and Documentation:

Q. How do you finalize the electrical requirements with the electrician?
We will provide a suggested  wiring list of inputs and outputs. The electrician verifies the validity of that list, and identifies any changes, for example, doors -- do they need one or two signals for control? We will provide all control to the barrier strip, using the solid state relays. The electrical will wire from the barrier strip to the contactors or motor starters. Each output relay is rated at 2-1/2 amps.

Q.  Do you supply an owners manual?
We do have three versions of operator's manuals.
* Our "Truck" system is geared to a feedyard that mixes to a truck.
* Our "Routing" system is for feedmills and feedyards with finish feed storage.
* Our "Blending" system is for other operations that use analog controls for control loop processes, like plastics blending.

Q: Does the operator manual show the available reports?
We have a user manual with examples of some 30 reports, available on request. When we put this on-line as a PDF file will be able to download it and print.

Q. Who needs to do what for Installation and Startup?
There is a complete document in the sales section that spells out the equipment we provide, our responsibilities, and customer responsibilities. In outline form it looks like this:
** We send equipment that is ready to go.
** You put it on a table
** mount the relay box on the wall, mount the scale(s) on the wall
** connect the supplied cables to the computer
** attach your loadcell cables to the scale, and calibrate it.
** attach your electrical to the relay box per our supplied drawings
** run the system diagnostics to verify your connections.
** run the system and operate all devices from the soft manual panel.

During this process, we will provide unlimited phone support. Chances are good that you can get electricians in the area that have done this install before, though none of it is difficult.

** Once the above is working, we time our arrival, usually for a Tuesday morning,  and you should be operational within a few hours. We stay on site for 3-4 days optimizing the process, since we have full development capability on site with us. We also provide the operator training for one key operator, who then learns by training others while we stand by for questions.

In summary, you provide the install, and we oversee the startup.

Before the install date, because the computer comes with a full simulator of the process, you can run the application, enter your data, and run simulated batches. It is a fully functional simulation, because we use this tool to get everything ship-shape and minimize testing in the field, which is why our startups are usually very quick.

You can have all of your data entered before we ever arrive, and you can run simulated batches, and alert us of any flow problems before we arrive. We will e-mail you revisions and you can repeat the testing. If you discover a problem after we leave, we can e-mail you a change, which you put to a floppy, and the system opening menu will give you the option to load the revision. This same menu allows you to backup and restore all of your data and program files to a floppy.

Q. How about operational changes (especially optimizations)?
While outright software failures are rare, sometimes changes will become apparent as you run the process for a few weeks, and discover that it needs to run a little differently to work better. These changes, as long as they generally conform to the intent of the original specification, are made at no charge for 6 months. After that time, they are made at reasonable rates i.e. a typical change takes 3 hours @ $85 = $255. Simpler changes are free, and even moderate changes are free if the customer maintains a support agreement once the 6 months expire. 93% of our customers find that a support agreement, over the long haul, makes sense.

Q. How closely does your quoted price match your final bill, since "things happen"?
In our system pricing, we allow a reasonable factor for misunderstandings. As long as the general intent of the specification has not changed, we accept responsibility to correct any confusion. I do not believe we have ever billed above the quoted price, except where the customer has knowingly expanded features and been quoted an added price up front. We follow the supplied input/output list, and as long as we can accomplish the task without significantly adding to that list, we absorb the variances. If it's two or three relays, sometimes the electrician will buy the relay and we will donate the software.

We recognize our responsibility to notice potential snags before they happen, and to do whatever we can to bear the burden of any task overruns without charge. Truthfully, almost every installation has something -- we just hope they aren't too massive. References available on request.

Q. Can you simply explain the Warranty?
On all Hardware
: 6 months or manufacturer's warranty, whichever is longer. On Software: Should you have an operational error, we will make it right. Rarely does the software outright fail. Once the 2-4 day install process completes, most of the operational issues should be worked out. Should you experience "workmanship" errors i.e. lockups, entry bugs, whatever, we guarantee free fixes for at least 2 years, but if at 5 years you suddenly encounter a workmanship bug, we will make an honest effort to fix it at no charge. No one should have to "live" with buggy software. . . ever !

Q. Terms of sale?
** 35% deposit. Our delivery time starts from receipt of the deposit. We cannot ship any equipment until we have the deposit, but we can work ahead, and be ready to ship the initial parts when the payment arrives.
** 50% is due on delivery of all equipment. Typically this gets paid at time of installation, unless we have delivered the equipment for several months, and the install drags for reasons beyond our control, then we ask for you to verify the function using the simulator, and make payment.
** 15% that you hold for whatever period of time you choose until you are completely satisfied.

Q. What happens once the deposit is received?
Once we know a deposit is en-route, we create the drawings and build the electrical box. Once it is in hand, we ship those within the week, so within 5-10 days the electrician can start. Meanwhile we drop-ship the UPS and Scale, and during the next two weeks, we complete our software, and ship the computer. Once the customer gives us cable lengths, we ship the relays and other cables.
Typical deposit to startup can be as short as 18 days, but is more typically about 35 days, though we are almost never the ones holding up the schedule. Typically, the electrical contractor determines the install timing.

Q. Time line for delivery after order is received?
Time of delivery for feedyard systems, is typically quoted at 4 weeks, but it varies with the complexity of the job, our current work-load, and vacations/holidays. Complex systems could take 12 weeks, but those are very unusual.



Q. How much is a spare computer system?
A spare system is $1500 including the Flowcon board that communicates with the relays and scales etc. That means that a backup solution is very reasonable, so switching, and fixing the problem off-line is very practical.

Q. Do you need to make periodic on-site visits to maintain the system?
We could come by and clean the systems, but we can sell you a brand new system cheaper than we can come on site. And a new system is more reliable than spending money cleaning one.
With the PC based systems cost of replacement at $500(replace computer, use monitor, keyboard, Flowcon board), it makes no sense to travel.

Officially: the cost to travel is expenses + 10%, plus labor. On-site is $85/hr. Travel labor is $800 flat rate. In reality, we hardly ever make service trips, (maybe one in the last 3 years) so we really don't have a practical baseline, and if we did, we would try to share expenses with another sales or install trip. Working through local talent has really eliminated our on-site requirements. We might spend 20 hours in phone support, but that is free to the customer and far preferable to the expense and time of travel.

Q. Describe Support Agreements:
Every July 1, we renew support agreements that typically cost from $750 - $1300 a year ($900 average), depending on support levels for the past year. It covers unlimited telephone support (even if the problem is not in our system i.e. an electrical or mechanical problem). It also covers bug fixes. Further, if we discover a bug in a similar customer, we will provide a no charge change to your software, even though you are unaware of the need to make the change. Obviously we take these kinds of problems very seriously, because it does not bode well for us if you are having system problems.

It covers repairs at our facility, like if you send us a computer for repair. It provides reduced labor rates for add-on software tasks -- system enhancements etc.

On-site support at reduced rates -- We have not had to do this in many years, because of our success in working with local electricians, scale people, and computer shops, and the occasional parts that are mailed to us for repair.

Q. How long has Flowcon been in the process control business? What about your key people?
Flowcon began in the late 60's. Two of us have been with Flowcon since 1978 . . . we have built and very successfully installed a whole lot of systems :-)

Thanks for reading,     
Bernie Bergen, Pres.