Today, Product Development of off-road, mobile equipment is so much more than just the evolution of the mechanical design. Features that can enhance the operator’s, dealers, and OEMs experience – such as automation, wireless communication, customization of the user interface, and prognostics – can also, if done well, strongly differentiate the product and enhance the ROI of all three of these partners. The creation and execution of a plan that considers all critical steps and perspectives is one of the most important parts in the development process.
Through the experience of Ethan, this article outlines how the right choice and integration of electronic control and monitoring technology fits into that path. Details on how to go about reducing the timelines and optimizing the value to the market are also discussed.
Ethan leaves for work early one morning, eager to begin production on the latest version of an agricultural implement his company has heavily invested in recently. He has been working on this development project intensely over the last 18 months. Ethan is a Director at the company and is responsible for all the Engineers that have designed and tested the product as well as all of the production staff that will build the 100 units that are to be completed and put into the field over the next three months. He also knows that, with success, 500 more units are expected to be in production in nine months.
This new product was made possible by the many years of successful sales and production of earlier generations (which has been the bread and butter of the organization) but, with toughening competition and greater customer demands, Ethan’s company had to drive a new level of functionality and customer service capability into this product to remain a leader and continue their successful operation.
Ethan’s a part of a close knit company executive, that sees a huge opportunity to utilize quickly evolving and ubiquitous technology that they feel can reliably and cost effectively add value to the end user, dealer network, as well as to their company towards the support of this product. It was 18 months ago that Ethan had his mandate with a budget in hand, a strong understanding of the new features the product needed to have, the timeline that outlined that this sizeable production run was to begin this month, as well as the team that he had to carry it out.
His first phase was to further vet these selected features on the product as a whole. Each of these new features made a lot of sense to the market but how was he going to ensure they could all be done well together without compromising product integrity and company reputation? How would he ensure the product could be manufactured, sold and supported profitably, with a strong ROI after only 24 months of production?
The new features included the following:
- The automation of many functions that up until now were manually controlled using hydraulics and simple electronics;
- The ability to easily set up/calibrate the product for working conditions through a user interface as opposed to all prior versions which required some education and mechanical adjustments directly on the product;
- The ability to have all of these automated/calibration features work on all of the numerous power platforms that will utilize this product;
- The seamless integration of their operating system into the tractors and introduction of smart devices to monitor as well as partially control the operation of the product;
- The collection of data that includes operation details, tracking performance of the product and tractor, as well as where it was used and by whom; and
- The ability to share this data with the operator, the dealer and Ethan’s company to better understand the use of the product and to become a diagnostic tool that can help minimize downtime.
Ethan, with his team, focused on formalizing a plan with the following key objectives (and timelines):
- Finalize the mechanical design of the product to facilitate these innovations (12 months);
- Determine the electronic platform and partner to help put this in place (three months);
- Layout a test plan to ensure product is proven prior to the 100-unit production run (six months); and
- Ensure facilities and staff can effectively and efficiently build the product, Sales can properly sell the product and educate the customer, Service has the tools and knowledge to support the product, and Engineering is in tune with its use and able to quickly roll out any solutions that are needed (18 months).
Each of these tasks is critical and needing to progress concurrently and quickly in order to meet the schedule. The optimal mechanical design (1) was determined through CAD, with simulation and FEA software put to good use along with thorough empirical testing. One thing that they found valuable during the preliminary stages of the design was in the education of the team on the various options of control, hydraulic valves had always been utilized and what they learned with electric motors and actuators had given them a very attractive option. With all of this work done up front they were able to streamline the design and prototype build process.
The right electronics package (2) will depend on a number of factors but some of the important ones are as follows:
- Modular design of hardware and software that can utilize standard products;
- Software development that is evolutionary by electronics partner or through internal resources;
- Development of software that is portable to more capable components when needed;
- Utilizes proven technologies and meets environmental conditions;
- A platform that is customizable and can adapt to new technologies;
- Communication with standard protocols: CAN (J1939 in Ethan’s case), ISOBUS, NMEA and
- User interfaces that are intuitive, multi-system compatible, wireless capable and specifically designed for the application.
With customer service and diagnostic capability vitally important, the following were critical in this consideration:
- Data logging capability;
- Cloud service;
- Wireless capabilities and smart device integration;
- ISOBUS communication;
- Software updates through smart devices; and
- Intelligence (data analytics ability).
The next key objective would help ensure there would be minimal surprises in the field. A test plan was established to ensure the proper life of the product (3). Functionality must also be proven in all conditions both from a mechanical and an electronics perspective. On top of a predetermined number of hours of use, a test plan must include validation on all conditions and applications. This was critically important because their product had to integrate/communicate with many different tractor platforms and their oftentimes unique ways of operating. Software would be tested in the lab but there was no true replacement for in-field testing.
The choice of their electronics provider and partner was made based on the following criteria:
- Modular hardware and software platform;
- Competitively priced hardware and development;
- The ability to customize and uniquely develop application software and customer interface;
- A partner that could help guide them through the development process considering all the needed perspectives of the customer, dealer and support staff;
- A clear plan provided by the partner that allowed for a high level of management by Ethan, staying informed of progress, and gaining a confidence that projected milestones could be met and kept on budget;
- An effective Software Development Kit (SDK) that made the development work economical and quick, and allowed Ethan’s software group to develop the aspects of the control system that they felt important to maintain;
- Quick response and intelligent support at all times;
- A company that had an expertise in all areas of electronics integration (software and hardware development, manufacturing, and 3rd party component integration) and were innovative and worked with a diverse customer base, establishing world-class practices; and
- A company that was not only an expert in electronics, but one that keeps up with the latest technologies, and works as a long term partner, fostering continuous improvement.
Product design and validation was known to be just one important piece of this project; Manufacturing, Sales, and Service were critical areas that were considered, consulted, educated and developed to best ensure a successful product release (4). The adoption of the right technologies were enabling effective support tools to be developed and that became important factors in each of these areas.
The design and use of a testing tool at the final run-in station ensured the manufactured product was leaving the plant with the right configuration and best ensured everything was wired and working properly. A training/diagnostic tool was another device that was developed and complemented the products control system such that operators, customer service techs, sales/service staff could learn how the product worked. This tool was also turning into a device that could be used remotely, to find root cause on any failures in the field and it was aiding in the development of a more intelligent, self-diagnostic product controller.
With the adoption of controllers that communicated with smart devices, how to enhance customer service on the product had become clear. Software could now be updated in the field through apps, which offered a huge logistical advantage.
The ability to access operating and parts manuals/tools through this app was also well received at the operator and dealer level, allowing for seamless communication between each of them when a new part or service discussion is needed. With their new data logging capability and the recording of critical operational information, this information could be analyzed to determine any faults in the field quickly. Accessing this data at the product was their first step and, with smart device integration, allowed for effective remote support through access to a Wi-Fi or data plan. With a cloud service, one they had decided to implement on the next run of products, an ongoing analysis of this data, watching for trends, learning when certain failure conditions occur, an ever improving prognostic system was going to be put in place. And beyond that, the cloud service can enable algorithms/machine learning practices to be utilized, to further enhance operation and have it more closely tied in with the dealer, OEM, and electronics partner.
Product location, weather conditions, utilization information (such as speed, acceleration, loads, etc.) were also information that was going to be collected in the system and the real benefits of their use would be seen in future releases. Once the company had their prototypes working in the field, fleet and rental companies were interested in a feature that could locate their product, and just like the OEM, learn how the product was being used and if in accordance with the warranty policy.
Ethan was on his way to work knowing there was still a lot of work to do, but having a confidence that the features incorporated were properly vetted, the product operation was going to be more efficient for the customer, and that their customer service tools were going to be much stronger, on a path to bring the end user and dealer into a stronger, more valuable relationship with his company:
- They had arrived at a mechanical configuration and design that incorporated the right components for control. After their selection, ran simulation, FEA, laboratory and thorough in-field testing of the product (in this case over 2 phases of prototypes and a small pilot build) to ensure the integrity of the product;
- They chose an electronics partner that had many years of diverse experience and with a strength in both engineering and manufacturing; they helped them arrive at an electronic control system that was fully integrated and had an effective combination of different standard products and technologies that were environmentally tested and proven to meet the demands of the product application;
- A test plan was established early on that included:
- An analysis of the different control system options and how they would impact the service and life of the product;
- How the product was going to be tested (utilizing an FMEA process) on the computer, in the lab, and in the field to best ensure the product would meet all applications and work seamlessly with all tractor providers products;
- Software that was to be tested on all power trains and run through a broad scope of conditions;
- An end of assembly line, run-in station that was designed and proven during the pilot build to ensure the configuration of the product was correct and that the components were operating as they should be; and
- A training board, that was to help educate all employees supporting the product, that has since turned into a tool that can simulate field conditions (utilizing data log information) and effectively troubleshoot the product
- Manufacturing developed their processes and fixturing to efficiently handle the run of 100 units, the Sales staff had been trained on the product (oftentimes using the training board) to see and understand its operation, the service and dealer network were educated not only on its use but also on the diagnostic tools that were in place to show how any problems could be diagnosed. The engineers were going to collect operating data on at least 10% of the units (key customers) so they could see that the product was being used to spec and operating within expected performance data (this would grow with the planned cloud service).
Stay tuned for future articles that will outline Ethan’s company’s results and how their cloud system was able to further enhance their user and distribution channels experience.