Amélie Sirois-Leclerc 2017-12-19 00:56:13
Editor’s Note: Three Ethics Essay Competition finalists presented their essays at ASABE’s 2017 Annual International Meeting (AIM) in Spokane, Washington. Third place went to Tyler Smith of Auburn University for “A Call to Ethics,” and second place was awarded to Sonja Loy of Texas A&M University for “Adopting a Systems-Thinking Ethic in Engineering Practice.” The first place essay is presented here. The Ethics Essay Competition is open to undergraduate and graduate student members of ASABE and/or the Institute for Biological Engineering (IBE). Entrants submit an original essay of up to 1500 words on a topic that affects the practice of professions related to agricultural and biological engineering, systems, or technology. Up to three finalists are selected to present their essays at the AIM. The top three entrants receive cash awards and complimentary AIM registration. To learn more, visit www.asabe.org/awards-landmarks/student-awards,-competitions-scholarships/ethics-essay.aspx. Views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of ASABE. Author’s note: The objective of this essay is not to undermine agricultural equipment manufacturers, but rather to discuss the reasons why we, as engineers, should be concerned with the right-to-repair issue that is under debate in some states. The reality is that engineers working in our industry are constantly striving to improve customers’ productivity by pushing the boundaries of equipment capabilities. However, decision-makers in this case are implementing measures that don’t necessarily align with engineers’ and end-users’ objectives. The agricultural equipment industry has seen an increase in the use of electronic systems as key parts of its products for a number of years. As these systems have been getting increasingly complex, agricultural equipment manufacturers have steered toward limiting their customers’ ability to repair their own equipment. As of 2017, several states are considering “Right to Repair” legislation that would give access to diagnostic and service tools for electronic products to the public. While proponents on both sides of this issue have legitimate reasons to be advocating their position, this essay dives into the ethical implications of limiting the right to repair and the reasons why farmers should be given the liberty to undertake repairs on agricultural equipment. Time is money The first factor to consider when discussing the right to repair is the time-sensitive nature of agricultural activities. In fact, preventing farmers from executing repairs on their own equipment is particularly detrimental to the agricultural industry because of the aspect of timeliness involved. Due to the nature of handling biological materials, product quality or yield are affected if activities involved in the growing process are not performed in a timely manner. With this in mind, it can be assumed that most farmers are using their equipment more extensively during the same periods at which timely repairs are more likely to be needed than during other periods within the year. In this situation, agricultural equipment dealerships most often do not have the capacity to repair equipment within the timeline required by their customers. Therefore, activities necessary to agricultural production are severely impaired when equipment needs to be repaired. Given these points, it can be said that the time-sensitive nature of activities involved in agriculture production means farmers are particularly vulnerable when their equipment’s electronics need repairs. For generations, farmers have fixed everything on their farms, solely relying on equipment manuals and their own expertise to do so. Therefore, limiting farmers’ ability to repair their own equipment is not only unheard of, but also rather counter-intuitive. As stewards of their enterprises, farmers are accustomed to tackling any and every task they encounter. Thus, relying on someone else to repair their equipment does not sit well with the centuries-old culture of the farming community. Additionally, requiring a technician to undertake repairs hinders productivity for two reasons. First, valuable time is lost when waiting for an available technician to come and repair equipment, and compounding this is the fact that dealerships are sometimes few and far between. Secondly, as will be discussed, some individuals would argue that dealership repair rates are unreasonably high. Considering this from an engineering standpoint, it is worrisome to think that this negative impact on productivity is being allowed while engineers are being encouraged to constantly strive to increase efficiency. Finally, opponents of the right to repair could try to make the case that farmers may not have the actual skills and knowledge to undertake repairs on their equipment’s electronic systems. While this constitutes a valid argument, it is important to note that the new generation of farmers is very technologically inclined. Additionally, farmers have not only adapted to the increased use of technology in the last decades, they have also been the instigators for the incorporation of electronics in some cases. Taking these issues into consideration, restricting the farmers’ right to repair their own equipment is counter-intuitive in two aspects: first, because they have historically always repaired their own equipment, and secondly, because it decreases efficiency in food production. Another issue that arises from restricting the right to repair is the fact that only a select number of parties have the necessary tools to repair agricultural equipment; this allows a situation where parties capable of performing such repairs retain a monopoly on repair services. Since manufacturers are lobbying intensively to oppose “Right to Repair” legislation, it can be assumed that this monopoly is benefiting these select parties, otherwise known as the agricultural equipment dealerships. By definition, a firm that retains a monopoly in an industry has inflated profits due to the fact that its products’ sale price exceeds what it would be in a market where there are competing firms. With this said, one recurring opinion amongst farmers is that the dealership repair rates are overpriced, which impairs the farmers’ bottom line. The fact is that any business model that relies on a monopoly is not sustainable and does not encourage free enterprise. Intellectual property and liability questions As a counter-argument, manufacturers state that giving customers or third parties access to the necessary tools would put the manufacturers’ intellectual property in jeopardy. However, since some farmers are already using hacked software as a way to bypass their inability to diagnose and repair, the fact that manufacturers’ intellectual property could be exposed is no longer relevant. Another issue to consider is liability; manufacturers suggest that equipment may not function as it is meant to after a farmer uses third-party services or parts. The loss of intellectual property and the risk of liability are both valid concerns. However, manufacturers could alleviate these issues by exploring the possibility of providing to farmers and third parties some select tools targeting commonly occurring problems in equipment electronics. By doing so, farmers would have legal access to tools they most often need, while manufacturers and dealerships would still retain control over parts of the product. Additionally, manufacturers would minimize the risk of farmers deciding to obtain hacked software that could not only alter the equipment’s functions but also minimize the distribution of options for which farmers usually pay, such as yield mapping and sectional control. To summarize, the manufacturers’ current monopoly on repairs is not only affecting a farmer’s bottom line, its effectiveness at protecting intellectual property is questionable. Therefore, manufacturers would do better to give access to select tools to mitigate the risk of liability and the loss of revenue resulting from the distribution of options. After considering these ideas, it is important to take note that the right-to-repair issue is not one that is exclusive to the agricultural equipment industry. However, customers subject to right-to-repair restrictions in the agricultural industry operate under vastly different conditions than do their counterparts in other industries. In fact, according to data from New York University’s Stern School of Business, the operating profit margin for the agricultural industry in 2017 was below half of the average operating profit margin for industries in the United States. This indicates that, in some regards, the agricultural industry is considerably less profitable than the average of American industries. As a result, any opportunity to improve agricultural firms’ operating efficiency should be fostered, which is precisely where the right to repair comes into play. As discussed, a farmer’s final product depends on many inputs over which he or she has little control. By giving farmers the tools needed to repair their equipment, at least the challenge of timeliness could be alleviated. Furthermore, prohibiting farmers from repairing their equipment’s electronic systems not only hinders their productivity, but it ultimately impacts food security in a negative way. Additionally, the monopoly from which manufacturers are benefiting at the moment is not an example of healthy competition in the industry and could be mitigated by giving access to the tools necessary to diagnose and repair select commonly occurring issues in agricultural equipment electronics. All things considered, the issues discussed herein have the overall effect of inhibiting farmers’ ability to operate as cost-effectively as possible. Seeing that food security has been and will continue to be a challenge for the world, one should question whether the topics of liability and intellectual property are reason enough to accept that the agricultural equipment manufacturers’ monopoly on repairs, and the flawed business model that stems from it, should simply be another challenge with which farmers must contend. ASABE member Amélie Sirois-Leclerc, B.Eng. 2015 McGill University; MBA 2017 University of Saskatchewan, Stewardship Specialist for Regulatory Affairs, Bayer CropScience Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, email@example.com.
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