In a sense, farmers make up part of the R&D departments of many ag equipment manufacturers.
Most companies seek customer suggestions during various stages of development in order to make their products as user-friendly as possible.
“That customer input is a key component of that process,” said Phil Jennings of Kinze Manufacturing.
While the R&D teams of such companies are littered with knowledgeable engineers who often have extensive ag backgrounds, there is no substitute for those who will be using the equipment in the fields.
“Customer inputs have a deep heritage here at Kinze,” Jennings said. “It’s really what’s helped us build the business that we’re in. It’s listening to what the customer need is, and then being able to apply a unique or different solution to it. From our very beginnings, that customer input in the development process has been key.”
Brandt’s product development process uses what the company calls its CAG system — customer advisory groups. When the company is in the early stages of a new product, it invites farmers to provide suggestions.
“We bring them in for a day in small groups of 15 to 20 farmers and have them tell us the good and the bad,” said Hans Rasmussen, Brandt’s sales manager for North America. “We have our engineers and others reviewing what we found out in the interviews, get more feedback, and pick up some initial concepts. We like to get some buy-in from them.”
Precision Planting has a different approach. The manufacturer of planters and other equipment begins with in-house innovation before opening things up to farmer input.
The company follows the philosophy espoused by automobile manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford, who once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
“Rather than letting someone else tell us what they think should be done, we research and figure out the agronomic issues facing farmers today,” said Precision Planting’s Bryce Baker. “Then we try as much as can to live and breathe their world. But we definitely want feedback.”
Kinze’s Jennings has seen many instances in which farmer suggestions resulted in changes in design. They sometimes seem minor, but can be important in buying decisions.
“It’s often what I would call the little changes on the user interface, like how big is the button you need to push,” he said. “Things like that are important, because it’s different when you’re sitting in the office or development area as opposed to bouncing along the field in a tractor.”
Customer input is welcome in many areas of product development.
“It could be technology, such as camera control on grain carts for unloading into trucks,” Brandt’s Rasmussen said. “It could be safety issues. It could be simple things — nuisances, like lubrication ports that are hard to get to. It could also be service issues, such as visibility when you’re driving it, for example.”
Sometimes geography plays a role. Precision Planting recently rolled out its SeederForce planter attachment. The company is based in Illinois, but there aren’t many air seeders in the state, so engineers made trips to regions where air seeders are common, including Texas, the Northern Plains and western Canada.
“We basically lived in the Dakotas for the weeks of seeding,” Baker said. “We were able to say, ‘What are the true agronomic issues?’ All along the way we are gathering grower feedback. Once we came up with some product concepts, we took them to those dealers and said, ‘Is this a winner?’ And we got feedback on that product.”
Product development can sometimes take a dizzying path to completion. Precision Planting recently brought a planter attachment named Conceal to the market. But it wasn’t a smooth ride.
“I hate to say how many iterations it has had,” Baker said.
The original idea was to have ideal placement of nitrogen. The engineering team believed that having a knife guide the fertilizer into the ground was the best method. But when it was put to the test, it didn’t perform as expected due to problems with field residue.
Engineers eventually cut a groove in the gauge wheel, then moved the knife inside the wheel. That worked much better, but the engineers then learned that servicing it entailed disassembling the entire row unit.
“So we went back to the drawing board and made it so you could disconnect the pin and swing the arm out,” Baker said. “There might have been 50 changes on that product. But the final model is due in large part to farmer testing.”