Putting Data to Work

JMP, a data analysis software from SAS Institute, can help ethanol producers get a jump on plant efficiency and profitability.
By Holly Jessen | December 15, 2014

There’s no question ethanol plant lab workers do a lot of testing and record a lot of data. Some companies, however, put a higher premium on harnessing data.

Jenny Forbes, manager of new product development for Phibro Ethanol Performance Group, believes that JMP (pronounced jump) could help give ethanol plants an edge in this area. While some of Phibro’s customers use JMP, the majority simply use Microsoft Excel, meaning data is manually entered into an Excel document, Forbes says. In some cases, nothing more is done with the information. “They collect a lot of data that just gets filed away, month after month after month,” she says.

For some of these plants, analyzing the data might simply mean calculating average fermentation rates. “The average isn’t going to tell you statistical significance, average isn’t going to throw out the outliers and make some comparisons in the same way this software does,” she says. “I think you lose the whole picture, or the investigative picture, if you just rely on Microsoft Excel.”

One key constraint is time. Many ethanol plant lab employees literally have no time to spare to train for and implement a new software, says Forbes, who was an ethanol plant lab employee in the 2000s.

“If you have people on staff that have time to dedicate to data analysis, yes, I think this would be a very valuable tool,” she says of JMP. “There are a lot of people out there, working at an ethanol plant, that have zero time to spare. And for them it wouldn’t serve any purpose at all, because it’s time-consuming.”

That’s where vendors like Phibro and Novozymes, which also utilizes JMP, come into play. Phibro uses JMP to help its customers with evaluating trial data or assisting with troubleshooting ethanol fermentation problems that impact yield. One of the best things about JMP is that, once the data is entered into the software, analysis is very fast. “I can make 20 graphs in 30 seconds,” she said. “You can do pretty amazing things with the software, if you know what you are doing.” Another bonus is that, as long as the data is in a compatible format, new JMP users can simply and easily upload the information in their Excel documents to the software.

An annual license for JMP is $1,540 in 2015. JMP Pro, which has additional capabilities, has an annual license cost of $14,900, according to an SAS representative. 

Heron Lake BioEnergy LLC, a 60 MMgy ethanol plant in Minnesota, has been utilizing JMP since 2011, says quality control manager Amy Audette, who started working for the company in 2014. She doesn’t know if JMP is becoming more commonly used within the ethanol industry, but she hopes so, she says. Audette also feels the software’s main strengths are the graphs she can create using JMP and the speed with which she can generate them. “These visuals are extremely useful and help to provide quick insight into the plant’s workings,” she says.

One example is when Heron Lake was faced with rising sulfate levels. Audette used JMP to create fermentation data graphs and identified certain dates when sulfate rates peaked. “The result came down to a strong correlation between longer ferm times and higher sulfates,” she says. “The high sulfates were related to the plant slowing down.”

Another time, Heron Lake used JMP to optimize enzyme dosing rates. The end result was using less product without negatively impacting ethanol yield, which adds up to a direct savings, Audette says.

Pulling It All Together

Direct Automation has a related product that is newly breaking into the market. PI in the Sky is a software that can be used with or without JMP, to store plant information in the cloud, which is viewable to ethanol plant customers on a custom dashboard, says Paul Zweifel, president of Direct Automation.

The product is now in use by two ethanol plants and another four will be using it by the end of the year. The company hopes it will have eight to 10 PI in the Sky customers by the end of next year. As the company’s customer base grows, it plans to add benchmarking to the its services.

Although PI in the Sky does offer some analytical tools, JMP is stronger in that area, Zweifel says. What Direct Automation’s software offers is the ability to automatically pull data from multiple sources, such as the plant’s distributed control system, equipment in the lab and even corn price information pulled off the Internet, to name a few. “We create the data sources that JMP would then use to analyze,” he says.

It also provides ethanol plants with a single platform to enter and store other plant data, like operator logs (which are often scribbled down in paper log books), financial data or even board of director reports. It is then compiled in one place, so various data sets can be compared. “It brings a whole new context to data collection and reporting,” he says. “There’s nothing else out there that currently aggregates all the data sources in the plant that are meaningful to a plant manager or an operations manager and puts them all in one reporting function.”

One example of data PI in the Sky can pull together is average enzyme rates, total slurry solids and the name of the operator who did the enzyme dosing. “We can tell you which operators might need additional training,” he says.

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine