Dangerously Smart Farm Boys

Long before farmers are ready to buy the implements required to grow and harvest energy crops, leading OEMs leverage robust research and development organizations to get them engineered.
By Tim Portz | January 30, 2015

For energy crops, or even crop residues harvested for energy production, to ever establish themselves as widely grown agricultural commodities the equipment necessary for their cultivation and harvest must be available at a cost that works economically for farmers. Fortunately for farmers and the prospective buyers of miscanthus, arundo donax, energy sorghums, fast growing willows and other energy crops currently under development this reality is a guiding principle for the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who have served them for over a century.

Maynard Herron is one of AGCO’s 17,000 global employees and, as manager of product proving in the company’s Hesston, Kansas, location, well-versed in the iterative nature of AGCO’s product development approach.

“I grew up as a farmer. I was always interested in the mechanical side of farming,” Herron says. “I have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and I got a master’s degree in agricultural engineering, which tied it all together well for me. I’m very interested in what people are doing to make a living with equipment on their farm.”

Herron and his team spend their time developing solutions for markets not yet fully commercialized, markets that the company expects may generate real demand perhaps five to eight years down the road including energy crops. “I don’t claim that we have a group of people who can look into the future and know where our products need to be at a certain point in time,” Herron says. “But we have an innovative group of people who we’ve given a little bit of freedom.”

With well-developed market share in both the grain and hay segments, AGCO is actively working to adapt and modify existing products to capture future orders from farmers looking to bale corn stover or energy perennials with hay-like characteristics. With an eye on developing a prototype that can be engineered to what Herron calls a “manufacturable state,” Herron’s team is using existing AGCO modules as a starting point. “I would say 80 percent or more of the functional modules of the machine already exist,” Herron says. “It’s not unusual for us to take a machine and add two or three functional modules to it that are from another machine just to get started.”

Once a prototype is fabricated, Herron and his team observe and modify based on what they see. Herron notes that while AGCO’s tradition of engineers working the field with wrenches and hammers has changed, the practice was certainly used as AGCO eyed the coming biomass-to-energy market. “An army mechanic I had the opportunity to work with used to say, ‘We’ll weld it on here and if we don’t like it we’ll cut it off and weld it on somewhere else,'" Herron remembers. He credits this mentor with changing his idea about the iterative work his team does every day. “He taught me to not see things as failures. Instead, he saw each idea that didn’t work as an elimination of one of the total range of possible solutions,” Herron says. “And that was success.”

Also fundamental to Herron and his team’s approach is to continue pushing toward an answer to the root question of “why?” He cites his early experiences working on corn stover baler concepts for the DuPont cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa. “When we started the program, the whole industry wanted to see higher-density bales,” says Herron. At the heart of the matter was that with lower-density bales, trucks were making trips from field to plant well below their carrying capacity, introducing inefficiencies that had to be eliminated. “We improved the density of the bales to the point of coming out of the field with large square bales that would fill a legal-size truck to the legal highway load limit in most cases.”

Once a particular design problem is overcome, another usually follows. Once Herron and his team solved the bale-density problem for the DuPont project, they moved on to throughput and bale size. “They never even stopped to take a breath,” he remembers. This exhaustive and iterative process is beginning to bear fruit as nearly 40 AGCO balers were brought online to bale corn stover in the Nevada area this fall.

New Holland
Another instantly recognizable ag-machinery brand actively developing equipment solutions for the prospective energy crop market is New Holland Agriculture, part of the multinational ag and construction equipment giant CNH Industrial. The organization’s R&D efforts are housed in the company’s New Holland, Pennsylvania, location led in part by John Posselius, innovation and technology manager.

Posselius and his team are responsible for developing the next generation of both New Holland’s agricultural and construction equipment offerings. Like AGCO, New Holland works to keep Posselius and his team focused on markets they feel may come to fruition on a four- to eight-year horizon.

“The advanced technology group has some leeway, but there’s a good bit of involvement from senior management,” Posselius says. “Everything we work on gets approved by senior management. We’ve got what I call dangerously smart farm boys. Lots of our guys and gals have PhDs”

Posselius credits his team’s understanding of agricultural and agricultural technology for the trust that company management has in their efforts, even if the immediate need isn’t readily apparent. To keep their pipeline of development work full, the company leverages its global presence to keep in tune with emergent trends in agriculture, whether they are bubble up in Europe, Asia or South America.

Another constituency that New Holland maintains close relationships with are the agronomy departments at universities around the world. They stay up to speed with the research trends they see and let those trends inform where they spend time and resources.

“In 2004 or so, we caught wind of some of the work that Dr. Tim Volk of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, was doing with willows,” Posselius says. “It intrigued us.” Posselius and his team learned that early efforts to harvest willow were utilizing existing sugar cane and forage harvesters. With both of those products already in their portfolio, willow seemed to provide a new market opportunity that fit nicely into what the company was already doing.

“After getting in touch with Tim, we started bootlegging some things and tried several approaches with engineering equipment that we already had on the fast growing willow,” Posselius says. “We had a pretty fair level of success.

The initial efforts were successful enough to win an approval from management to expend more time and energy on developing solutions for a crop not yet widely grown. Still, when considering willow’s potential and the existing platform New Holland already had in sugarcane and forage harvesters together, the opportunity proved too good to pass up. “When we can take advantage of a current product with no or minimal modification that opens up a new market for us, that’s a positive situation,” Posselius says.

This same logic applies to the New Holland’s continued interest in perennial energy grasses like miscanthus. The company sees its existing hay and forage platform as a common sense departure point from which to compete in this category should it become commercially viable for farmers to grow those crops.

In addition to the overcoming the technical burden of harvesting willow, or miscanthus, or corn stover, Posselius and his team must also consider the economics during the design phase. Speaking specifically about their work developing a coppice header capable of effectively harvesting willow, Posselius says, “We need to develop a header that comes in at a price point that we can afford to build, that our customers can buy and can produce chips at a price an end user can pay.”

Ready For Production
Both Herron and Posselius eventually have to let go of their projects, either because a decision has been made to cease research efforts or a prototype is ready to move into full-scale production. Designing a machine that can effectively bale corn stover with low ash content is a completely different endeavor than engineering it so that it can be manufactured and deliver a profit not only to the company, but ultimately to the farmer that buys it.

Posselius and his team ultimately release their concepts to a product design group responsible for getting that product built and released to the waiting farm community. Is it difficult for Posselius to let go of a project he’s worked so hard on, sometimes for years? “It takes a particular type of person to do the upfront work,” says Posselius. “For some engineers, it would drive them nuts to not take a project all the way to the finish line of having a saleable product. Some people like to prove concepts, some like to build product.” Fortunately for Posselius, he’s the former.

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Editor, Biomass Magazine