The Next Steps for Innovation in Agriculture – a New Level of Networking.
Excerpts from a talk given by John Anderson, the CEO and Founder of JCA Electronics, a technology and manufacturing firm focused on control systems for off-road mobile equipment. John was speaking at an AMC Innovation Awards ceremony held in Saskatoon, Canada, July 16, 2018.
Good evening everyone and thank you Leah for the kind introduction. I’ve been asked to speak about Innovation in Agriculture, something that has actually been going on for thousands of years. I had some decisions to make, give a talk about the long history of agriculture and where we came from, speak to the future and what the farm and industry could look like in 10-20 years, incorporating existing and likely future technologies, or, I could speak to some of the key current developments on innovation and how I think we can all best participate. I chose the third option, but if anyone is interested in holding a discussion that looks into the future please count me in.
Understanding I have only 15 minutes I want to share a bit of my experience and perspective (which has mainly been focused on technology and providing mobile equipment controls to the manufacturer); and get into the who, what, where, when and the why of innovation.
But first, I made the promise to my 12-year-old son to tell a joke:
“What do you get when you cross a robot with a tractor…. A Transfarmer.”
That’s right I’m an engineer and I think that’s a great AG innovation joke. After University I discovered that the exciting engineering jobs and opportunities were Agricultural. This was confirmed through my experience at a number of OEMs (in various industries) and during further schooling in business. Eventually, I started JCA Electronics out of my parents’ garage and with a focus on Ag electronic controls and innovation.
What was Innovation Going to Look like at JCA?
JCA started with a simple idea of manufacturing build-to-print electronic components for equipment manufacturers and the business really grew over the years, and I was grateful. But my strongest desire was to become an integral partner with our customers by really learning their business and providing an expertise that they really valued. This approach required continuous innovation –always trying new things and learning from those experiences. This was difficult at times, but we were willing to take on projects that had not been done before, learned from those experiences, improved, and continued to take on new projects. Through it all, I knew (and know) that with strong partnerships we would be driven to doing the right things, filling a specific niche of electronic controls for ag equipment as well as for all other off-road mobile equipment (which for the most part follows the lead of ag).
Why did I have this need for innovation – if it was so hard, why do I want to continue to do it?
I believe Innovation creates value within an organization, enhances competitive advantages, promotes value in the market and ultimately drives growth and profitability. I also believe this practice never ends, new ideas must always be vetted, tested, implemented, continuously improved to drive efficiency at all levels and be able to foster further value. I also learned that there is an appropriate rate of innovation, which is dependent on the market; because there needs to be an appetite for it and it must be matched by the right time for the technology. Thankfully there is also that drive to get ahead of competitors, or risk falling behind.
Innovation in agriculture
There is a need for agriculture companies to innovate at a faster rate than ever; because the increased rate of change in technology, changes the competitive landscape. Ag producers definitely feel the constant pressure to improve and the intelligence and demands of the owner/operator make the farm a great place to integrate effective innovation.
Some topical examples of innovations presently driving change in ag are:
- Perception and sensing technologies – These new abilities make sense of the external environment and make smarter decisions on how to control machinery with technologies like Lidar, vision systems, and machine learning; Much like intelligent lane intervention in your car, this could be used in the field to help align a grain cart with a combine when unloading on the go.
- Connectivity technologies – This is the ability for machines to easily communicate large amounts of application data to operators and other machines;
- Data management and data analytics – This is the ability to make sense of the large amount of data, and draw out intelligent insights; and
- Advanced user interfaces such as augmented reality – This is the ability to interact with the high-levels of information in new ways that integrate easily into the working environment; if you come to see JCAs booth at the show you can see what augmented reality (requiring you to put on a pair of glasses or look through a tablet) can offer the producer, the dealer as well as the OEM; As examples, this technology can put additional information into your field of view as you look out at your crop, or help you identify parts on your sprayer that may need to be replaced and show you how to do so.
These technology changes are being driven from other industries, such as the ones that are producing the autonomous car and the smart device in your pocket, but can be applied to ag to allow machine manufacturers to create new value in the efficiency of farming operations. Also, these technologies will bring change to each market and threaten the status quo – and this creates huge opportunities for those who take advantage.
Before I go on to speak about how I think the innovation process can be done better, I would like to share a recent story:
Last week my son came into the living room and asked me what my greatest adventure had been. This was a great question and I thought I knew what kind of answer he was expecting. With that in mind I remembered scuba diving adventures I have had with sharks, climbing mountains on a whim, flying and jumping out of airplanes… but none of these inspired me. I looked back at him not really knowing what to say, and as he does not have that long of an attention span, I realized he had already moved on and was looking at his iPad.
After he left the room I thought about his question. What had been my greatest adventure? It became clear that the founding and operating of my business, was certainly one of them. And the second, was the raising of my son, someone whom I loved dearly. I also started to see these two activities as similar: exciting at times, stressful many other times and sometimes chaotic. But activities that if you study to prepare for them, if you are honest, logical, strong in communication, are selfless, and have the right motives and work ethic, you have a good chance at being successful.
At that point, I went looking for him and apologized for the delayed reply, but that he had asked an important question and I wanted to give him an accurate answer. I told him my two greatest adventures were my business (which he has seen me have a passion for) and raising him (where I hoped he felt my love). And the fact was, that our adventure as father and son was at the top of the list. After a second he said: “I think that’s because I’m crazy sometimes isn’t it dad”. Again, I had pause for thought, but he was right. His definition of crazy is extreme enthusiasm, and that describes him and one of the things I really respect in him.
The reason I tell this story is that this same type of enthusiasm (or craziness) is what drives successful entrepreneurs, innovators and farmers alike. They have a tenacity in their work and in achievement and I think this is what is necessary to effectively innovate and advance society.
How Can Innovation Be Done Better?
We know that innovation is important for the survival and growth of organizations, it is needed at a higher pace than ever before, but it is difficult, especially as technology gets ever more complex, so is there a way that it can be done better? Yes! Innovation can be improved through what I will call the strength of the network. Connecting companies that have strengths in different areas, and collaborating on innovation can increase the collective technology in North America at a faster pace than each company could alone.
This requires rethinking the process of innovation as something that a specific company needs to do, but rather, collectively building the ability to access technology quickly and then adapt it in a unique way for each specific OEM to best enhance the capability of their products.
European ag companies have already recognized that there are benefits to collaboration, to reduce the risk and increase the speed of innovation. Their goal, to work collectively to build base technology that can be accessed by a wider group. As an example, Germany’s DKE Agri-router is a collection of ag OEMs that formed a not-for-profit. They focus on developing technology that connects data generated from agriculture machines to farm management systems with an agnostic solution. The farmer now has more of a choice as to which equipment and which farm management solution they can use together. This is addressing a core issue in ag technology that is benefiting the group as a whole.
North American ag companies can learn from these examples and help increase the rate of innovation through connecting together and in some cases collaborating on key technologies. This could be done formally through organizations and initiatives focusing on particular areas (like the aforementioned German example). Or more informally through an increased willingness to connect with other companies on collaborative projects and combine efforts to speed up North American technology in ag. One such Canadian initiative (APP) can be found at www.jcaelectronics.ca/APP5in5.
What’s the Impact in the World Economy?
Emerging technologies are going to change the way that farming is done here and around the world. This will cause major changes to the ag equipment market. North America has a wonderful opportunity to be a leader in bringing about this change because of our deep knowledge, diversity and experience in farming, as well as to our reputation for quality. An approach of innovation through collaboration can really set apart North America as a global leader.
As the leader of a growing electronics technology and manufacturing company I see the value innovation can bring to the producer, the dealer and the OEM. As well as all the synergies that can be gained as companies open up to a more collaborative approach. All of us in this room, and the North American economy as a whole, will benefit and can make an even more significant impact on feeding a growing global population.
And if I might just add one final point. To those innovators in the room who I will call the real “Transfarmers”; firstly, thank you and congratulations, for your work and to those who are getting recognized tonight. And I’ll add that we are just starting to accept the idea and envision what the fully autonomous farm could look like, effective networking and innovation in AG will enable us to get there.