Agricultural Trends

From the drawing board to virtual reality


Walter Wagner, Vice President Engineering Fendt Tractors, tells us, how much digitisation is already integrated in the development of the manufacturer's cutting-edge tractors.

In 1930 the first European 6 hp Dieselross tractor rolled out of the workshop at Fendt. Today, around 80 high-tech tractors leave the production line every day at the Marktoberdorf site. Do the development and production processes of that time and today still have anything in common?

In production, of course, there is still plenty of drilling, milling, turning and drawings are still created in the Design department – but there are no longer any other similarities between the beginnings and today. You don't even have to go back to 1930. We've changed tremendously since the 1970s alone. Where there used to be drilling machines and transfer lines, we now have digital machining centres that process data directly, optimise themselves and constantly improve their quality and flexibility. When I started my studies in the early 80s, we had one major vision: we wanted to design machines on the computer, that automatically transmit the data to Production and there the respective component should be manufactured automatically. Today we are slowly arriving at the goal, we dreamed of back then: from the drawing board to virtual reality. We now develop a tractor entirely digitally. We design in 3D on the computer and then we look at each individual component together with our colleagues from Production in the virtual space. Using 3D glasses, weak points in the design are often immediately identifiable and can be quickly remedied – such processes are standard today. This also applies to prototyping: here, too, we start discussing vehicle concepts with colleagues from Assembly in the digital world at a very early stage, so that we can quickly see how we assemble which part and what the optimum sequence in the factory looks like.

The Fendt 1000 Vario has won a lot of awards, including the "Tractor of the Year 2016" award. How much development time does it take to develop such a machine?

Basically, development times are getting shorter and shorter, but at the same time we have massive technical innovations that absorb this time saving. It is no longer possible to develop a modern tractor with traditional methods, with designs from the drawing board. We need about 3 years and more than 25,000 hours of testing time to develop a vehicle. We may have to initiate individual developments even earlier. The Fendt 1000 Vario, for example, has a second-generation continuously variable transmission, which takes about a year's lead time. This means that we start with transmission development in such a way that we already have the first prototypes before we start developing the complete vehicle. This then goes as follows: we make the first drafts and check them in a team. Subsequently, there are two prototype phases to ensure technical quality. We build the first prototype, make the necessary changes and improvements, so that one year later we can build the second prototype. Another year later, we start with a small pilot series, i.e. a trial run for the processes in the factory and the entire organisation. Three months later, serial production starts.

In road traffic autonomous driving is undergoing testing; in agricultural engineering it has long been a reality – modern tractors are high-tech machines. How much longer will there be a person in the driver's cab for? What else does he/she have to do?

Of course we need a driver, but not necessarily for the driving itself. Autonomous driving is standard in the agricultural engineering sector, the machines already drive with an accuracy of up to two centimetres. The purpose of the human is to monitor the devices hitched to the rear of the vehicle and to check the quality of their work. Because we have not yet reached the stage where we can automatically control the attached machines in the field. We therefore need a driver who can adjust the seed drill correctly or correct the plough pattern. This is one of our major tasks for the future: the development of smart algorithms and image processing systems for evaluating and controlling the work quality of attached machines. To do this, we need high-resolution cameras that work perfectly even under difficult conditions, such as mud and dust, and algorithms that evaluate the camera image and adapt it to the farmer's requirements. We still have a lot of work ahead of us here, and as a tractor manufacturer we can only solve this task together with the equipment manufacturers.

Employees on farms are not necessarily IT specialists: how do you make sure that everyone can handle the machines?

The human-machine interface is an extremely important issue for us. We have many employees with an agricultural background and we work closely with our customers. When we develop new concepts, we build prototypes at a very early stage, which give a first impression of what we want to achieve. Then we invite farmers – customers and those who drive competitors' machines – from all over the world to participate in workshops where we put our concepts to the test. We incorporate the critical feedback from farmers into our further development work. We then build the first prototypes which customers use to test a wide variety of applications in the field – from pure transporting to ploughing. This allows us to quickly notice what works well and where the machine still needs to be optimised. When they finally buy a machine, we offer training courses with our sales partners. Of course, this is much more important today than it was for the Dieselross. Anyone who can drive a car can drive our vehicles without training. Drivers should, however, invest some time to learn how to best use the machine. Only those who are able to operate their vehicles correctly and know all the options can get the best out of them and optimise how they use resources. You don't have to become an IT specialist; in case of doubt an external specialist can also connect to the device and provide support.

Keyword connectivity: Agricultural machinery is increasingly being equipped with smart technologies to communicate with each other and automatically coordinate work processes. What is more important: communication between man and machine or communication between two machines?

Clearly, communication between people is the most important thing. Then comes the interface between man and machine, since there are no purely autonomous vehicles that are completely driverless. As long as we still have a driver on the machine, the focus is on the driver. We have to provide him with the ideal workplace, because he can only achieve the best performance with his trailer when he feels comfortable. In order to do this, he not only needs a good all-round view and a good climate in the cabin, but also his equipment must be intuitive to use and its comfort such that he does not get tired. The driver is therefore still the focus of our attention. But this will change more and more in the future. As the machines' intelligence increases, communication between machines is becoming increasingly important. A practical example: think of an automatic overloading system when driving a shredder. The driver must drive his tractor and trailer very precisely and at the same time pay attention to the shredder, where it is and how it is loaded. If we can automate this process from machine to machine, so that they can control themselves optimally, we relieve the burden on the driver. And that is exactly what is increasingly being pushed. But in the end, it's all about people again: comfort is always at the heart of everything.

Electric cars are now part of our everyday life. Will more and more electric tractors berolling across the field in the future? Or are there other alternative drive technologies?

It goes without saying that we are on our way to electromobility, i.e. the pure electrification of agricultural machinery. At Fendt, a research project was carried out 20 years ago with the aim of electrifying a gear transmission system. With the so-called X-Concept, we finally developed a hybrid system for tractors and we presented a windrower with an electric motor at Agritechnica 2015 – in other words we are constantly developing further in the electrical sector. In September of this year, the Fendt e100 Vario was introduced as a fully electric compact tractor with 50 kilowatts of drive power that can operate for up to five hours under real-life conditions. Nevertheless, the diesel engine will remain with us for a long time to come, especially since at the moment we do not have the necessary energy storage capacity. Powering a 200 hp vehicle electrically requires a battery weighing approximately five tonnes. This allows a farmer to plough for two to three hours before the battery needs to be recharged. Obviously this is not practical. So we still have a lot of work to do here.

Let's take a glimpse into the future: What will tractors look like in 2050?

It will be very exciting to see how the whole of agriculture changes. It is not only about machines and their use, but also about how business models change, how plants and cultivation methods change. We are machine builders, but ultimately we have to respond to the demands of agriculture and when cultivation methods change, we have to adapt to them. After all, we want to continue to grow worldwide. There are different trends. We are seeing new agricultural methods such as vertical farming, i.e. the production of agricultural products on high-rise buildings in large cities. Perhaps we will then no longer deliver tractors to them, but irrigation systems or their controls. Another important topic is robotics. A great deal has happened here in recent years. Mowing robots are now often seen in private gardens and even larger areas of up to 7,000 square metres can be mowed without any problems. Or consider how the use of drones has developed. We are experiencing rapid change. Traditional tractors will of course continue to exist, but they will be much more intelligent and will process much more data, such as weather data or soil analyses, directly. Farmers will plan the cultivation of their fields on a PC and tractors will then work autonomously on the fields. It will be the farmer's task to monitor these processes. We are not too far away from this scenario. And best of all, tractors will optimise themselves. Today, drivers can take a training course to optimise operation of their tractor. Even before 2050, there will be self-optimising systems that will detect when, for example, a plough is set incorrectly and too much energy is consumed. Connectivity will play an increasingly important role in all this. Naturally, this raises the following question: what kind of service can we offer our customers with a fully automatic vehicle, what repairs are necessary and what can be optimised on the vehicle – depending on the customer's requirements and application? The farmers must be able to rely on his machines working when he needs them, and we are responsible for that. This is why we must be networked.


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