South Dakota farmer develops grain storage aids

LEOLA, S.D. -- Jerome Mack is a busy man. While his wife Lynette maintains the family's Old Bank Lodge that caters to pheasant hunters, he raises wheat, soybeans and corn near Leola, S.D., and operates a 2,200-sow farrow-to-finish hog operation, ...

Jerome Mack of Leola, S.D., is crop and hog farmer, but also an entrepreneur in businesses that make robots as aids in swine breeding and safe grain handling. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

LEOLA, S.D. - Jerome Mack is a busy man. 

While his wife Lynette maintains the family’s Old Bank Lodge that caters to pheasant hunters, he raises wheat, soybeans and corn near Leola, S.D., and operates a 2,200-sow farrow-to-finish hog operation, with most of the hog finishing in northwest Iowa.
But Mack also has a third focus - Mack Robotics Inc.
He initially got into robotics to develop Boar Bot - a robot that moves boar decoys around the hog barn to stimulate sows for artificial insemination. The Mack companies have built and sold 1,200 of the machines and create about 100 per year in Leola.
Bin Bot biz
Recently, Mack Robotics added the Bin Bot - a miniature, remote-controlled skid-steer loader, designed to go inside grain bins to assist with clean-out in situations that are dangerous for humans.
“There’s a lot of equipment inside grain bins, and a lot of it works really well, but there are sometimes tough situations - bridged grain, moldy grain, compacted grain,” Mack says. “People end up going inside the bin to assist removal and they’re getting engulfed or suffocated, or entangled in the equipment. This machine is designed to not have to have the guys go in the bin, but accomplish the same job as they did before.”
The Bin Bot is controlled remotely - primarily visually from a doorway. The company is also developing a system to operate the machine remotely with cameras and floodlights, attached to the Bin Bot itself.
There is a separate power unit with a gasoline engine, which stays outside of the bin, tethered to the Bin Bot by the hydraulic “lifelines.” The triple-stacked hydraulic pumps tend to be overbuilt and drive the orbital motors on the machine.
The company uses “food grade hydraulic oil” to fuel the device.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have to shut the machine down and fix a leak, but at least you won’t lose any grain product,” if they come in contact, says Sam Hansen, service manager.
Popular tools
Anything that can attach to a skid-steer can attach to the machine for grain removal, Hansen says.

The most popular tool is the three-bushel bucket, which is designed to replace a human and a scoop shovel. “We’ve developed a number of styles of buckets to move the product,” he says.

There is a 12-inch diameter “stinger-style auger” attachment, made of high-density plastic, used to dislodge products. Other effective tools are the 12-foot extendable boom arm, the “dozer” attachment and the forklift tine attachment, which allows the operator to drive the machine into a sloped pile of grain and push tines beneath an overwhelmed power sweep.
“A job that normally would take four or five guys hours to do, this thing can do in a couple of minutes,” Hansen says.
There are 10 attachments available, Mack says. Some products under development have been sold and are being tested by customers, so they can be improved.
A typical sale involving a machine with several attachments could range from $15,000 to $40,000. Some customer-companies might have hundreds of bins and want dozens of the machines.
Bin difference
One of the challenges, Hansen says, is that grain bin manufacturers all build bins differently. “Trying to build units that address all grain bin needs is quite difficult,” he says. “A product might work for one-fifth of the market, but might not work for the other four-fifths.”
Bin Bot prototypes can enter just about any kind of bin.
“As far as entry methods go, or ways to get the machine initially into the grain bin, those are addressed on a bin-per-bin basis,” Hansen says.
The entry point on some bins is a hole, 20 feet off the ground. The 200- to 300-pound machine must be lifted, moved through the hole, and dropped inside for assembly. In most cases, a worker might need to go into the bin to set up the Bin Bot and tools, following “confined space guidelines,” Mack says, but the Bin Bot stays in the bin to complete the work.
The company has developed five versions and is still doing final testing and development. “We haven’t got the (market) door open on that, but getting inside the bins, we also have a few other products under development,” Mack says. They’re working on a self-unclogging power sweep, for example.
“Starting out, we’re targeting the commercial market,” he says. “Grain handling companies are having a harder time right now meeting [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] workplace safety guidelines. That’s where the opportunity will be starting out, but I anticipate if it’s successful it will grow into the farmer market.”
The company initially had a challenge meeting all of the Underwriters Laboratories and government dust-ignition-proof standards. The last version the company made all-hydraulic, which is being improved to handle various conditions the product could face.
Few in the field
In 2014, Mack Robotics took the product to the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., where the product won the Top 10 New Products award. It was the first year for the company at the show. Several fruit and nut producers were interested in applications, including those that could reduce breakage in pistachios, for example. The company takes the products to shows specifically geared toward the grain industry.
One good omen for Mack Robotics is that they have no direct competitors in the grain business.
“We’ve heard of one using a potato gun type of a thing, using ice balls to knock down overhanging grain,” Hansen says. “That’s a solution for only one of the kinds of problems that occurs inside grain bins. Ours is the only known prototype built - in production or development - built specifically to replace a human being inside an enclosed environment.”
Mack can’t say exactly how much of his time is focused on Mack Robotics and the Bin Bot project.
“It goes in streaks,” he says.
This time of year, he’s thinking about the corn harvest.
Harvest comes first, he says, and there is no robot to help him with that - yet.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTA
What To Read Next
As Mikkel Pates approaches his retirement from Agweek after 44 years in journalism, he talks to Rose Dunn about learning TV, covering ag's characters and scandals and looking toward the future.
Members Only
“In our industry there aren’t a lot of young people in it. I like the fact that there are a lot of young people in agriculture here,” he said of the Mitchell area.
Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and Minnesota Corn Growers Association were pleased with items in Gov. Tim Walz's "One Minnesota Budget" proposal.
John Deere and the American Farm Bureau Federation recently announced they had come to an agreement that will lead to more accessible repairs to John Deere equipment.