Bernard E. Romig 2016-10-25 00:31:11
This special Resource issue is dedicated to a look into the future of agricultural machinery. In closing with “the last word,” it seems pertinent to reflect on the ways engineering has changed in the last half-century and how it may well change going forward. Fifty years ago, computers were rare, and those who used them wrote their own software. Most of the design decisions required for a new machine were based on a combination of hand calculation and experience. Development cycles were long, production of drawings and material specifications was time consuming, and what little accelerated-life testing that existed was based on experience rather than well documented material science. Today, computers are ubiquitous, and software for almost any discipline is readily available. This has fundamentally changed the way we approach engineering design. It is now routine to explore a vast array of options, using mathematical models, early in the design of a new or revised machine. The first prototype can be much closer to a final design, even though the time from concept to prototype has been reduced. Well documented, accelerated testing allows an expected machine life, measured in years, to be verified in a few weeks, further shortening the time from concept to production. As a profession, we are also learning to use new materials and fabrication techniques to produce designs that were almost impossible just a few years ago. These trends will continue and will promote the ever-increasing productivity and efficiency needed to support the world population of 2025 and beyond. Even more important than the changes in the machines will be the changes in user experience as machines become more autonomous. Fifty years ago, machine operators had to decide the appropriate settings for multiple controls in an attempt to optimize performance. Feedback control loops⎯other than the engine speed governor and, where applicable, draft control of the three-point hitch⎯were nearly nonexistent. Today’s trends in machine autonomy began as science fiction. Early attempts at self-steering tractors and feed rate controls never reached production because the experimenters could find no practical way to observe the condition they were trying to control. With new sensors, and computing power to extract meaningful information from multiple sensors, we can design machines that require less second-by-second human input. In fact, the human operator has so little continuous involvement that distraction is becoming a problem! Future semi-autonomous machines will require careful interface designs to ensure that the human remains in control while maximizing the use of machine intelligence to perform routine tasks. The human interface problem will eventually be solved, but that is one of the major challenges in improving the productivity of agricultural machinery. While the quest for efficiency is nothing new, society is becoming ever more aware of sustainability. Life cycle analysis is well accepted in principle. However, as a profession, we still have a lot to learn as this practice develops. It is already apparent that life cycle analysis will require more systems engineering techniques. When the environmental impacts of building a machine and disposing of it at the end of its life are added to the impacts from machine operation, we have a complex trade space in which a global optimum will rarely coincide with the optimum for any segment of the machine’s life. Another effect of this increasing awareness of sustainability will be a need for an in-depth look at our ultimate goals. The people who use agricultural machinery are primarily attempting to meet the food, fiber, and fuel needs of the world population. Current farming practices are working toward that goal, but there is little reason to believe that a more sustainable practice can’t replace any current practice. The moldboard plow has almost disappeared during the last fifty years. Similar changes will occur as we develop a better understanding of the optimal environments for growing crops and livestock. So what should we expect in the years to come? First, the pace of change will continue to increase. Engineering will include more effective model-based design tools, more reliable methods for accelerated durability evaluation, and advanced electronics at a reasonable price point. These changes will result in shorter lead-times on new products. At the same time, new ways of farming will result from a new understanding of the needs of crops and livestock, combined with society’s increasing comfort with autonomous devices. Beyond that, it’s futile to attempt a more specific prediction, because our future course depends on many things yet to be realized. ASABE member Bernard E. Romig, Principal Engineer, John Deere Fellow, Moline Technology Innovation Center, Moline, Ill., USA, RomigBernardE@JohnDeere.com.
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