This year, more than 200 of the nation’s top agricultural engineers travelled to Kansas City, Mo., to attend the 2013 Ag Equipment Technology Conference, a professional development conference open to members of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). It is one of the few conferences in the nation that is dedicated solely to power machinery used in farming. It also is the home of the AE50 Awards, an awards competition that honors companies that are pushing the envelope in farm equipment designs.
Douglas Otto, engineer with CNH and chair of this year’s program, says the conference is tailored around agricultural engineers who want to learn about the latest advancements in power equipment. “The technology is evolving very fast, and we are drawing on experts from other industries to talk the technologies that are changing their business so that we can learn how to apply them in our design roles.”
We asked Otto to give us the inside scoop on the 10 hottest topics discussed at this year’s conference.
1-Lightweight metals: Aluminum, magnesium and titanium alloy shave been used for years in the aerospace and automotive industries to reduce the weight, carbon emission and fuel consumption of the structural designs. But because they cost more than standard steel, they’ve had limited use in agriculture. But, Otto says, there is a new push to use them to reduce the weight of farm machinery. “We are seeing a change in material technology as more focus is placed on reducing soil compaction and cutting fuel costs,” he says.
For example, some of the machines developed recently make more use of aluminum because of its strength and low weight. “I can’t cite anything in particular that is coming in the next year that will revolutionize the way we think about this,” Otto says. “But those of us in the industry know that we need to move to lighter-weight materials that also carry the durability required in farming. And the price of these materials is coming down, too, making them less cost-prohibitive to use.”
2-CANbus: A controller area network, called CANbus for short, is an integrated electronics network that originated in the auto industry. It allows multiple control units to exchange information on a single circuit or “bus,” allowing for such things as raising and lowering all four windows of a car. The same technology is now being used in farm machinery to manage engine power (engine power management) and automating complex tasks such as turning a tractor and implement at end rows (called headland management).
“The whole idea of integrated electronics has become very much a part of our machines in the last 10 years,” Otto says. CLAAS Industrietechnik, a supplier of hydraulics and drive technology, presented two of its electronic controllers. One was the CLAAS Hydraulic Controller (CHC), used to control up to four hydraulic valves. Another was the CCU 16plus, an extremely powerful controller for managing complex sequences on all CLAAS electronic platforms.
3-Tractor power: There are basically three forms of tractor power: mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical. One of the themes of this year’s conference was how to exploit those forms of tractor power to improve efficiencies of the tractor implement system.
“With tractors, we are always looking to get the most power out of it — whether it be ground power, hydraulic, or pto power — for the amount of money we spend to create it or for the fuel required to run it,” Otto says. “Because of that, there has been some additional research done with mechanical power, and whether it is the most efficient way, or if there is another way that would be more efficient.”
For example, he says operations that require a variable-speed drive, like planting or spraying, have historically used hydraulics. “Some studies have shown that electrical power is a cheaper way to go,” Otto says. “We are digging into the details of this research and are starting to share where we might start to apply these different forms of power.”
4-Tire technology: Advancements in radial tire and tracks affect the design and development of agriculture machinery. So tire manufacturers were brought in to talk about the present state of development of agricultural tires and tracks. Michelin and Firestone Farm Tires talked about their new IF and VF tires that can carry heavier loads with less soil compaction while improving traction. CLAAS Industrietechnik shared information on the CLAAS Gen 3 Terra Trac System designed for the same purposes. Also shown was new tire technology Titan has designed to reduce tire damage caused by crop stubble.
5-Irrigation: “Irrigated farmland is becoming much more common, and there are various reasons for that,” Otto says. “But clearly it has become a big part of our business, so we programmed a course on this so that engineers who design power machinery can learn more about it because most of us in the design aspect of power machinery aren’t exposed to it every day.”
Irrigation manufacturers showed off their latest products and technologies designed to conserve water and enhance crop productivity in irrigated ag. Companies included in this were Valmont Irrigation for its Valley VRI (variable rate irrigation) system, and Reinke Mfg. Co. for its work on regenerative water use with mechanized irrigation systems.
6-Custom harvesting: “This is a new topic for us this year, and one that is becoming common in the farm industry,” Otto says, describing it as a business whereby a farmer growing a crop hires out the harvesting of those crops on contract. “Custom harvesters are someone who combines 10,000 acres/yr. or more, and their demands on equipment are different than someone who farms just a thousand acres of corn each year and then puts the combine away. So it is important for all of us in this business to understand those demands.”
Engineers are learning the ins and outs of this business, including the day-to-day operation, customer support, and technologies available to this custom harvester segment. Some of the latest technologies include CLASS’s self-propelled forage harvester technology and John Deere’s Harvest Support Team.
7-Safety standards. Work continues on making machinery safer and developing standards to match new regulations. At the conference, Richard W Job Associates LLC talked about standards opportunities for air quality systems in agricultural cabs. Other safety topics ranged from legislative updates to vehicle lighting and marking regulations.
8-Utility tractors: “This market segment is big business for all of us in agriculture because it is high-volume and globally diverse,” Otto says. He says tractors in this 40- to 100-hp segment are used in almost every farming application and can be paired with numerous implements and attachments.
“We’ve asked, who are involved in that market, to share what they’ve learned along the way because that knowledge can be applied to the development of other product lines as well,” Otto says. Representatives from Deere and CNH provided an overview of the size and variability of this market, emerging technologies, and the factors that determine what level of technology is accepted.
9-Livestock handling. "This year we programmed a livestock handling session, which is new for us because typically our focus at this conference is power machinery,” Otto says. “But there is a lot we can learn by studying the equipment and technology used in feeding and manure handling of livestock facilities.”
Examples include the feed quality technology at CLAAS, manure application equipment and technology from Puck Customer Enterprises, and the new livestock facilities, manure transfer, processing and application systems from GEA Farm Technologies.
10-Farm management information systems
Precision farming is going beyond field guidance and control systems and is being integrated with accounting software programs called farm management information systems (FMIS) to help farmers manage their business. Such systems include records management, business planning, cash flow projections, systems decision making, and equipment utilization.
“Many manufacturers offer these [data management] solutions,” Otto says, citing such examples as CLAAS’s Farm Management System and John Deere’s FarmSight strategy. “Our goal is to offer a balanced view of these solutions from a user's perspective and identify their future needs and expectations, including the development of data standards.”