As one decade ends and another one is about to start, the farm machinery industry is at the beginning of a technical revolution. Steven Vale reports.
The last 10 years has once again seen tractor makers forced to spend many millions on strict engine emissions regulations, the latest being Stage 5. However, this has not deterred several makers from developing alternative power and driveline solutions.
In particular, the recent Agritechnica machinery show in Germany saw a flurry of developments. This included several diesel-electric hybrids, the most stylish being Steyr’s Konzept tractor, confirming the leaner and greener theme will continue to play an important role for the next 10 years.
Similarly, what makes John Deere’s latest 8 Series tractors’ eAutoPowr gearbox (first continuously variable transmission with an electro-mechanical power split) interesting, other than the claimed increased efficiency, is it provides surplus electricity which can be used on implements. Famous transmission manufacturer ZF also showed a similar electric CVT, which we understand will be in a tractor by the next Agritechnica in 2021, so our tip is to expect to see more electric implements quite quickly.
In addition, anyone who trawled the halls at the Hanover Fairgrounds might have seen numerous autonomous vehicles, the most powerful of which was on the John Deere stand. The technology already exists for one operator to supervise several unmanned vehicles, but legislation and farmer acceptance are perceived by many to be the two main obstacles. Love it or hate it, there is no stopping technology, so expect increased levels of automation on all farm machines.
Aside from technology, the stands of the big four – John Deere, CNH Industrial, Agco and Kubota – at Agritechnica also gave us some strong clues as to which way these manufacturers are heading when it comes to product line development and brand strategy (see panels).
The strategy at CNH Industrial, which sees the separation of the on- and off-highway divisions, was recently outlined in a five-year business plan by senior management at the New York Stock Exchange.
Part of the plan to grow the company’s farm machinery sales revenues by 5 per cent each year is to reposition and strengthen the three brands of Case IH, New Holland and Steyr, and increase the levels of differentiation. What this means from a product perspective is unclear, but CNH Industrial stresses Case IH will focus on large-scale ‘professional farms’; New Holland on orchards, mixed livestock and arable farms; and Steyr will be repositioned as a premium European ‘short-liner’.
The wind of change saw CNH Industrial group all its farm machinery brands (Case IH, Kongskilde, New Holland and Steyr) on one large stand at Agritechnica, the central focal point being clearly on the parent company. When an opportunity arises, CNH Industrial is keen to make further acquisitions, such as the recent ones of Australian company cultivation equipment specialist K-Line Ag and ATI Track Systems, which produces rubber track systems for high-HP tractors and combines.
Another recent acquisition was farm management information system company AgDNA. Added to the AgXtend precision farming software solutions portfolio which launched at the end of 2018, we are told to expect a significant expansion of the number of products during the next few years.
The most notable Agco acquisitions in the past decade were GSI in 2011, and the same year the company acquired the remaining 50 per cent stake in Laverda (and Fella) from the Italian Argo group.
Major news in 2017 was the purchase of Lely’s grassland equipment business, followed the same year by Precision Planting. Agco remains the only one of the big four which is a pure-play farm machinery business, but the positioning of the Fendt brand has changed.
It is not long ago that Massey Ferguson was the company’s undisputed ‘full liner’. Not anymore, because Fendt has quickly evolved from a German wheeled tractor specialist to a mainstream brand, with a wide portfolio which includes nature green versions of the Challenger tracked tractors and self-propelled and trailed sprayers.
Fendt also has combines, self-propelled forage harvesters, grassland equipment, a planter (made in Brazil and available in the US and Canada in 2020) and, from Agritechnica, a telehandler.
Fendt reckons to have sold 18,000-plus tractors last year  and it aims to sell 20,000 tractors in 2020. It will be interesting to know what the business plan is for the next few years.
Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether Agco plans to complete the Fendt portfolio with arable equipment? This is not unthinkable, following CNH Industrial’s acquisition of Kongskilde Agriculture in 2017.
Agritechnica certainly gave visitors a few more imminent technological pointers. For example, Valtra is the first tractor maker to offer head’s up display and we are informed a similar system is included in the MF concept tractor.
Joystick steering, commonplace on construction machinery, looks set to make inroads on farm machines, judging by the systems on the Ideal 10 combine and MF concept tractor.
New tractors, including the eagerly-awaited rubber-tracked 8RX, and the surprise reveal of the 9X combine were the main talking points on the company’s Agritechnica stand. Equally interesting was the fascinating glimpse of the future and working prototypes of nine different electrification, automation and artificial intelligence projects.
The most striking, the autonomous electric vehicle, combined a rubber-tracked 500kW (680hp) electric drive unit with an integrated disc harrow. How the electrical power is generated is still up for debate, but it shows how tractors could evolve into ‘power units’ which could be integrated with a number of different implements to effectively create one machine.
Another stunning concept, the 9.2-metre diameter VoloDrone, was developed with German firm Volocopter.
Equipped with two, 60-litre liquid tanks, a pump and a 10m spray boom, the 18-rotor VoloDrone is ready for its first test flight.
Business-wide, John Deere has completed numerous strategic acquisitions during recent years, including sprayer manufacturers Hagie, Mazzotti and PLA.
John Deere’s 2017 purchase of California-based artificial intelligence firm Blue River Technology gave the company see and spray technology, and an example of this was also in the future technology zone.
However, the most visually stunning example of another direction field spraying could take in the future was a 2.7-tonne autonomous self-propelled vehicle fitted with a 560-litre spray tank, 9m spray boom and a barrage of sensors and cameras. Powered by a 37hp petrol engine, it is envisaged that two or three of the autonomous units could work in a field. The vehicle was shipped back to North America once the show ended for further tests. Will we ever see it, or any of the other prototypes again? We will have to wait and see.
Tractors were not the only exhibits on Kubota’s Agritechnica stand, which also included Kverneland, acquired in 2012, and Great Plains, bought in 2016, as a show of strength.
Kubota brought an autonomous prototype tractor and showed a bolt-on electric pto generator at the last show in 2017. From a new product perspective, but for a Stage 5 engine in the M7003 Series, there were no spectacular prototypes at this year’s Agritechnica.
But you can be sure that Kubota is actively developing a wide range of new technologies behind the scenes as it continues to work quietly to achieve its long-term business plan to take a larger share of the global tractor and farm machinery markets.
The Japanese manufacturer has never made a secret of its intentions to grow tractor power above the 170hp French-produced flagship. It remains to be seen whether the M8000 Series (175-210hp) produced for Kubota by Russian-owned Canadian tractor maker Buhler Industries, will make it across the North Atlantic by the next Agritechnica.
Ultimately, Kubota has ambitions to grow the power levels still further to 250hp, most likely using its own European manufacturing facilities, but could Buhler provide Kubota with articulated tractors in the future for certain markets?
You can be quite certain the big three farm machinery players are closely following the proceedings.