Complexity vs. Reliability: Finding a Better Fix for Farm Equipment

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For centuries, farmers have fixed their own machinery, and if they couldn’t fix it themselves they would call on a local mechanic to make the repair. But modern agricultural equipment has gotten much more complex and the traditional screwdriver and wrench are often useless for fixing computer software embedded in the machine. When these modern wonders break down, farmers must call on the OEM or dealer technicians to make a repair. Beyond the inconvenience of relying on someone else to fix the equipment, farmers may wait days for repairs while their crops (and revenues) suffer the consequences. The problem isn’t one of complexity, it’s one of reliability.

The advanced capabilities of modern farm equipment are a direct response to farmers’ desire for increased crop yields and lower operating costs. When OEMs roll out new technology there is a natural learning curve for the OEM, whereby defects are identified and problems are corrected. However, agribusiness is like other business; operators (farmers) lose money when their equipment is down. But due to the seasonal nature of the business farmers need to be self-sufficient, so when they can’t fix the equipment on their own they get frustrated by delays and blame the OEMs. And that’s become a big problem.

According to a recent blog article on Wired.com, “New High-Tech Farm Equipment is a Nightmare for Farmers,” the complexity of servicing this equipment has created a sort of backlash against advanced farming machines. “The cost and hassle of repairing modern tractors has soured a lot of farmers on computerized systems altogether. In a September issue of Farm Journal, farm auction expert Greg Peterson noted that demand for newer tractors was falling. Tellingly, the price of and demand for older tractors (without all the digital bells and whistles) has picked up. “As for the simplicity, you’ve all heard the chatter,” Machinery Pete wrote. “There’s an increasing number of farmers placing greater value on acquiring older simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix.”

Furthermore, the writer notes, there is a growing community of Do It Yourself (DIY) farmer hackers out there (the writer is one of them), and there is “a thriving grey-market for diagnostic equipment and proprietary connectors.”

What should OEMs do? Design simpler machines? That’s not likely to happen, because many farmers do enjoy the benefits that a more complex machine can deliver.

Or should they carefully expose some of their diagnostic and repair information, while guarding their proprietary intellectual property (IP)? Should OEMs share their troubleshooting and diagnostic information so that third-party technicians or farmer DIY folks can make repairs instead of relying on the dealer or OEM?

These are viable options but OEMs may not want to risk their IP or let third parties make repairs. A prudent first step would be to improve their customer support and field service operations so they can diagnose a problem and help the owner, or a technician, to make repairs quickly and accurately. Additionally, OEMs need to gather accurate feedback from field technicians. The information required is deeper than simple survey responses and is needed so engineers can recognize new problems and emerging failure trends, thereby enabling preventive actions and improving product designs.

Ultimately, such an approach helps OEMs provide better customer support and deliver innovative products to a market with increasingly tight profit margins. The alternative is to engage in a sort of “cold war” where complexity and reliability are at odds and customer satisfaction suffers. Already farmers are frustrated and fearful about buying equipment they don’t understand, OEMs are pressured to deliver better products with only limited feedback about what is (isn’t) working, and dealers are stuck in the middle trying to service sophisticated equipment they don’t fully comprehend and can’t fully support. That’s a war with no possible winners.

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