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Farmers get involved in machine design

Anyone who has operated or repaired farm machinery has probably asked themselves, at one time or another, “did some engineer really think this design was a good idea? If only they’d asked farmers …”

In today’s highly competitive environment, brands now make a special effort to do exactly that. Farmer panels are usually involved in the process of creating a new machine.

Norquay, Sask., farmer Jordan Lindgren can attest to that. He was invited by John Deere to be part of a focus group that provided input on design for the latest 9RX tractors.

“I was approached by John Deere down in Waterloo. There were three of us from Canada involved in the focus group, three from the U.S. and one gentleman from Australia.”

Over the following few years, as the tractor design evolved, Lindgren participated in several online conferences as well as trips to the U.S. for meetings.

“The first time we were down there was 2019. It was right before COVID. Then we did some virtual stuff, because of COVID. We couldn’t fly down there. They brought us in on Zoom on some concept stuff, because it was still in the concept stage at that point.

“Once restrictions were lifted, we were able to get back down there and see the prototype they built.

“They made you feel really welcome. It was a low-pressure environment, but at the end of the day, they wanted to know how we felt about what direction they should go with this thing, what we would like to see happen and what would make us happy about it.”

For John Deere, such consultation has become almost mandatory.

“We can’t build something in a vacuum. We have to listen to our customers,” says Michael Porter, John Deere’s go-to-market manager for large tractors.

The formal development process can take several years, and farmers like Lindgren are brought into the process early to build an initial design.

“It usually starts three to four years in advance. Usually it’s before we even have the core design built, because a lot of these inputs need to be done before we even have our core diagrams or sometimes even a sketch on paper,” says Porter.

“If you look at this machine, it’s a ground-up redesign, so they really had to be involved early on or else a lot of those changes probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Lindgren agrees his group was involved long before any finalized concepts were presented for consideration. Eventually, the group was invited to see an actual prototype.

“When we originally went down to see the prototype they built, it was almost like a Frankenstein. There was wires all over the place. They hadn’t fine-tuned a bunch of that. In July (of 2023) it was a complete tractor exactly how they would roll it out for production.

“The big eye opener for me was they took everything we were saying literally and tried to implement it if they could.”

On the 2023 trip, the focus group was able to operate the tractor in a field in California and provide final opinions on its design and performance.

Porter says the number of participants in any advisory group can vary, depending on the machine under development and the size of geographic region in which it will be sold.

“It varies by the programs. Usually it’s less about how many people and more about the different markets. We want a variety of different backgrounds.

“With a tractor like this, that has a lot of different areas that use them, then we’ll try and take a sample from a lot of those areas. It’s more driven by who the customer is that is looking for these machines than a true number.”

Lindgren says he was pleased to be involved and would do it again if asked.

“To go down there and see the time, energy and infrastructure put in place to make these things what they are, dependable, operator friendly. It’s not slapped together. It’s years of asking guys what works and doesn’t work, running through tests.

“To be able to see it from the standpoint of jotting things down on paper and going through a virtual reality simulator and then one somewhat built to the final product and being able to test it, it was an amazing experience. It just lets you know the R&D that goes into these things.

“I would definitely recommend that if anybody gets the opportunity, they jump on it for sure.”

Deere will continue to make customer input a priority in designing new machines, says Porter.

“The market is changing. The customers are changing. Their priorities are changing. If we don’t listen to them, we’re probably going to build something that doesn’t sell. Customers have choices.”

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