WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As the largest family-owned retail seed company and the third largest seed brand in the United States, Beck’s turned to The Data Mine team for a top-priority logistics issue to solve: Evaluate opportunities to improve operational efficiency of transferring product between warehouses and develop solutions.
Doug Abney, a senior majoring in agricultural economics, worked with Beck’s Hybrids during the fall and spring terms. He spoke about the team’s persistence in its pursuit of finding business solutions.
“The only thing better than uncovering a problem is thinking of a solution. That’s where we are able to use our skill sets and research,” he said.
The team members met each week with Beck’s Hybrids, explaining their ideas and collaborating with company representatives.
“There’s a lot of times we’ll get done with a meeting, and I keep thinking about how we can solve that issue,” Abney said. “It’s something I find really interesting.”
Beck’s Hybrids is an operation that’s grown in the last 15 years to the third-largest corn company in the nation. Company representatives first connected with Purdue because of an interest in research and project work.
The Data Mine program has helped Beck’s Hybrids solve real-world problems, access top talent and challenged them to think outside the box.
Brad Fruth, director of innovation at Beck’s, said the work by The Data Mine students will result in the company “having the right product in the right place at the right time.” He championed the program’s ability to draw engagement from a cross-disciplinary group of students with diverse backgrounds.
“These students are engaged; they want to be there and they want to learn,” Fruth said. “They’re coming at these problems with their own views and unique viewpoints and backgrounds. Our employees love to be challenged, and they ask a lot of good questions that no one has asked about why we operate this way or what’s the risk-reward tradeoff.”
Fruth said some of the students gravitated toward a hard science approach to the problem while others focused on the business aspect of the issue.
“The Data Mine created this consortium of people who are custom built to look at your problem that you would not be able to gain if you had to procure those people on your own,” Fruth said.
Mark Daniel Ward, director of The Data Mine, said Beck’s representatives liked the results of the first project so much that another team of students is working on a second project: a “plot loss tool” to help analyze research plots and forecast the test-plot locations that are most suitable for planting specific types of seeds.
Brandi Payne, research technology lead for Beck’s Hybrids, said managers rely on 150 test plots in the Midwest as outdoor laboratories to collect the best-quality data on potential new hybrids in the Beck’s product lineup.
Collaborating with The Data Mine team will be a boon in the otherwise complicated and complex process of corn-yield trial field testing.
“We have confidence the students can help us develop a ‘plot loss tool’ that can aid in identifying new testing fields by analyzing all the variables and characteristics of that location, then predicting the risk of losing plots,” Payne said.
The results, Payne said, help Beck’s better protect research investments and create the best product to help farmers succeed.
The Data Mine is part of Purdue’s Integrative Data Science Initiative and is the first large-scale living and learning community for undergraduates. Students from all majors are eligible, and together, they focus on advancing data science through collaboration, learning, research, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Will Hirschfeld, innovation project manager at Beck’s, said the issues tackled by the student team were a top priority. The ongoing collaboration with The Data Mine has produced actionable insights for the company.
“It’s a great opportunity for a corporate partner like us,” he said.
The work also has piqued the interest of other teams with Beck’s Hybrids that want to explore how to use The Data Mine. Working with The Data Mine also has created a unique talent pipeline for the company’s recruitment. Fruth said the projects have put Beck’s Hybrids in contact with some amazing people.
“The talent pipeline at the university level can be challenging for a business like Beck’s,” Fruth said. “As an ag company, how do you get exposure to mathematics students, Krannert (business) students and ag students? It’s going to be through programs like The Data Mine.
“The Data Mine has given us looks at talented students that that we probably wouldn’t have seen if we just showed up and did the traditional job recruiting tasks.”