USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is rapidly moving forward on its goal to have a totally automated cotton classing system, says Norma McDill, deputy administrator of the agency's cotton program in Washington.

“The 2000 crop was the first time we did not use human classing for color. The percent of cotton in color grade 41/32 and higher was 87 percent for the 2000 crop, slightly lower than 1999, but equal to three out of the past six years and higher than in 1998.”

“The automated classing system (ACS) is an innovative approach for increasing efficiency and accuracy in the classing process, and at the same time providing some relief to the increasing labor shortage problem we face,” she told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their annual meeting at Memphis in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show.

The ACS moves cotton samples automatically through the classing process, requiring no operators.

“We currently hire some 750 seasonal employees to operate our High Volume Instrument (HVI) systems,” she said. “Obtaining the necessary labor for this work is becoming a Number One issue for us.”

The cotton program currently has 240 HVI stations in its 12 classing facilities and its Quality Assurance Section.

Over the years, the program has made a transition from HVI machines requiring three operators to systems that now need only one person.

The automated classing system, requiring no operators, will be operational first at the Memphis Classing Office. It includes 10 HVI stations, six loading stations, one system controller, one unloading station, and various peripheral equipment. Everything is interconnected by an integrated conveyor system that moves cotton through the system automatically.

Stop by and see it

“We invite everyone to stop in at the Memphis office and see this equipment,” McDill said. “An especially appealing aspect of the ACS is that it is designed as a system, rather than being a fragmented group of individual HVI stations within the laboratory.”

Human classers, she noted, will perform visual determinations of leaf grade and extraneous matter and will operate the loading stations for the ACS. “Effectively using them to perform both duties will eliminate the need for additional personnel to operate the loaders, thus enhancing efficiency.

“The individual HVI stations will have modular components to provide easier servicing and minimum downtime. In the event of a component failure on a given HVI machine, the module containing that component can be removed quickly and replaced with a new module. This will allow the HVI to resume operation while the technician does repair work on the faulty module.”

The new HVI system, McDill said, is capable of measuring fiber length, length uniformity, strength, micronaire, color, trash, short fiber content, and elongation.

“This instrument exceeds the technology of the previous generation of HVI by providing a measurement for moisture content and a new trash measurement capable of discerning leaf from extraneous matter. The trash measurement uses digital image analysis software to distinguish bark and grass from leaf. It also uses Xenon flash technology to provide a more stable lighting for color readings.”

“Since the manual classers did not have to class color, their volume of samples classed was increased, reducing the overall number of classers needed. Additionally, elimination of manual classing reduced the number of weeks required to train classers from 14 to seven, and reduced our costs for training.”

McDill said the agency is currently putting the ACS through “a rigorous series of performance evaluations” for precision, accuracy, and production volume.

“Each HVI measurement is being tested individually, using several known-value cottons to test for precision and accuracy. Once all HVI components have passed these evaluations, a production volume test will be conducted to test the speed of the system with respect to contract specifications.

“Our plans are to have all testing completed by Aug. 1 and to have the system into full production for the 2001 crop.

“We think this system is going to move us closer to providing all cotton quality measurements by instrument,” McDill said.

Last year's conversion to HVI color as the official USDA color grade “was another significant step” toward full instrument classing, she said.

“The 2000 crop was the first time we did not use human classing for color. The percent of cotton in color grade 41/32 and higher was 87 percent for the 2000 crop, slightly lower than 1999, but equal to three out of the past six years and higher than in 1998.

“Since the manual classers did not have to class color, their volume of samples classed was increased, reducing the overall number of classers needed. Additionally, elimination of manual classing reduced the number of weeks required to train classers from 14 to seven, and reduced our costs for training.”

Implemented last year

The agency implemented improved quality measurement controls during the 2000 crop year, McDill noted.

“This included implementing a new method to insure accurate measurements. When a sample was HVI tested, our software program would automatically check three samples preceding and three samples after the sample being tested in order to insure consistency in the classing results.

“This new procedure helped to achieve more accurate quality measurement results,” McDill said.