Mike Vande Voort 2016-10-25 00:22:57
Specialty agriculture has its fair share of design challenges, with farmers comparing the technology of specialty ag equipment to other ag equipment, as well as to consumer products. In particular, in designing equipment for specialty crop harvesting, there are a myriad of challenges, and difficult decisions have to be made in order to design and market a high-quality harvester that will help farmers make money. There is often a trade-off between the latest high-tech and the simple-to-operate and simple-to-service. Design cycles are often the result of a new technology in harvesting, control systems, or operator comfort. Recently, however, there has been a new demand for redesign based on environmental considerations. This includes Tier IV engine emissions and internal manufacturing processes. For many manufacturers of specialty ag equipment, the additional cost of the new high-tech, lower-pollution engines has a direct effect on the cost of new equipment. Specialty ag manufacturers have looked to increase sale prices, but higher price tags can cause farmers to extend the use of their older equipment, rather than purchase new machinery. In addition, the new engine technologies often require more space for their functions, such as cleaner exhaust, which makes installing new engines into existing machinery almost impossible. As a result, manufacturers must redesign a larger portion of the machine, which adds to the development cost. Part of the redesign includes efforts to control the manufacturing cost, which helps to control the sale price. Because of the higher price tags for new machinery, farmers want to know how these machines are more efficient, and how they can help keep operating costs⎯whether per acre or per hour⎯from climbing. In specialty agriculture, particularly in harvesting operations, increased efficiency for the end user has become a focus for many manufacturers. We look to increase the overall farm efficiency through the design of our equipment. In order to do this, we need to be in touch with our customers, to make sure we are meeting their needs. Our product leadership teams have the specific purpose to make personal contact with farmers and then bring the information together to make decisions that are best for both the company and the customer. As we continue into the 2020s, this process will be an ongoing challenge. The challenges of automation Automation is a new frontier in specialty ag equipment. Automation already exists in some forms, and it will make its way into harvesting equipment. Specifically, machine vision and robotics will increasingly appear in specialty ag systems. Reliability and cost, along with processing speed, will be the major hurdles. The new systems will be smaller and slower than larger, less precise, less automated machines—and more machines will be needed to harvest a farm. Driverless equipment will be adopted more slowly. Specialty agriculture, which often involves perishable products and high-value crops, will likely retain a human operator to oversee the machine and make on-the-go adjustments. As we design machines that are more efficient, we will include more networked systems, so that the operator can monitor key performance indicators while the onboard controller adjusts other parameters to optimize machine operation. Challenging questions will arise from the end users: “What happens when something goes wrong?” and “Who can fix this machine at a moment’s notice?” Technicians who can troubleshoot and repair high-tech machines are already in demand, and they will be in even higher demand in the future. End-of-life for agricultural machinery will also continue to be a challenge for manufacturers and end users. As technology changes, the new technology is incorporated into new machinery. After all, why keep using a four-year-old computer controller when a faster, more powerful, and less expensive replacement is available? Parts availability will become increasingly difficult to sustain as machines become more complex. Many end users expect that parts will always be available for their 20-year-old (and older) harvesters. For many mechanical parts, that long-term availability does not seem daunting. However, with more and more sensors and electronics installed on machines, sourcing of parts becomes a challenge, especially when microchips are discontinued due to lack of demand, or due to the on-going advances in microchip design. Big growth in small farms I believe that small farms (5 to 20 acres) will increase in number as the trend toward community-supported agriculture (CSA) increases. Existing hobby farmers will find new opportunities in CSA. As a result, the market for hobby-size farms will increase, along with greater demand for towed and mounted equipment. Many of these farms already have a tractor and some other machinery, but they will look for easier, more automated methods for tilling and harvesting. Selective harvesting would be ideal for this type of farm, as well as reasonable costs for the new equipment. At the end of the harvesting day, we all want our customers to be successful. Keeping abreast of their needs and finding ways to serve them will make our work rewarding and continue to advance the art and science of agriculture. ASABE member Mike Vande Voort, P.E., Design Engineer, Oxbo International, Lynden, Wash., USA, An Oxbo 6120 grape harvester. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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