Where Are We At Right Now With Automation?

Written by: Andrew Jason

Photo by Hillary Ehlen

With products like flow monitoring solutions for air seeders and dry fertilizer applicators along with several new products in the works, Intelligent Ag is creating equipment to maximize the efficiency of farmer’s operations. This joint venture between AGCO Corporation and Appareo has quickly been growing over the last couple years. With automation rapidly becoming mainstream, we talked with General Manager Joe Heilman about the current status of automation in agriculture and why North Dakota is the right spot for Grand Farm.

About Heilman
Joe Heilman grew up on a farm near Rugby, N.D. and then went to North Dakota State University where he graduated with degrees in Business Administration and Accounting in 2009. He then served in the ND State House of Representatives before being named the General Manager for Intelligent Ag. 

Q: In order for automation in agriculture to be mainstream, it needs to be affordable. How far away are we from automation being mainstream and fully embraced by farmers?

A: Affordability is not really the key word. I would rephrase it slightly to say “in order for automation in ag to be mainstream, it needs to provide value that essentially outweighs the cost.” In many cases, automation is already mainstream, it just isn’t completely and fully automated. Auto-steer, for example, is a widespread technology that automates parts of the operation very reliably. It had a fairly slow uptake initially, but as costs came down and more value was shown by the tech, it is a standard piece of technology on virtually all tractors today.

The industry is already automating many key areas of the operation. Many combines are self-adjusting now, something that only expert/experienced operators were able to do adequately throughout the day. With labor shortages, particularly with the skills to do this job well, combine harvesters with the ability to take ANY operator and help them perform like experts is a huge value to a farm owner or manager. 

I believe farmers are already embracing automation in certain areas, and will continue to embrace it more and more. We won’t just “flip a switch,” though, and everything will be completely autonomous. We need to develop the sensors, self-awareness systems, artificial intelligence systems, etc…in stepwise fashion. These technologies are not likely to come in one big package all at once, but rather in smaller, iterative solutions over time. That’s where companies like ours are finding success. 

Q: One of the reasons that Fargo is able to plant its stake in the ground when it comes to automation in agriculture is because of the joint cooperation and partnership between companies. Talk about that mentality of helping each other out and how you are partnering with Appareo.

A: Fargo has so many strong roots in the ag industry. It really is a powerhouse with large dealership chains headquartered here, each of the big three Original Equipment Manufacturers (John Deere, CNH and AGCO) have a connection to Fargo, and all the other business surrounding the industry, it’s an ideal place to be. There seems to always be a willingness to collaborate and move the industry forward. 

At Intelligent Ag, we’re able to work with Appareo Systems to leverage their deep pool of engineering, experience and research capabilities to help solve the problems we identify in the industry. We work hand in hand with them to design and test our product ideas and we then take the products to market. Appareo also manufactures our products. Leveraging their high quality standards from the aviation side of their business, we have very high quality products. 

Q: In terms of automation in your plant, talk about how automation is affecting your business model and also affecting the lives of your employees.

A: Automation allows us to be competitive in a global market. With higher costs of labor in the U.S. than in other countries, we have to leverage some automation to remain competitive. This does not mean we hire less people. On the contrary, this allows people to focus on matters of greater importance and solve even greater challenges. Automation is good at replacing processes that are very repetitive, so I believe this frees people up to create even more value.

Q: Finding the right talent for these high tech jobs has to be difficult. Talk about your recruitment process and how you handle it when you’re fighting for the same employees as some of these other companies.

A: Yes, it is a highly competitive job market. As a small business growing rapidly, it is difficult to compete with large compensation packages alone. It comes down to people and the culture we’re able to build. People are motivated by money, yes, but culture and a fulfilling mission is a major attraction. We have an amazing team and this is our biggest differentiator in the market.

Q: What products are you working on now that you’re excited to see launched?

A: I can’t speak about too many of our future products specifically. This is our first year in full-production of a product line we call “Recon SpreadSense®.” This is a blockage and flow monitoring product for boom style fertilizer applicators. These machines are HIGHLY utilized (often covering 20,000-30,000+ acres per year) and performance is very important. You can learn more at intelligentag.com/products/1504/spreadsense.

We are currently developing more technologies in the fertilizer application segment, as well as other areas. 

Q: Where do you see farming being at in 50 years? Do you think we’ll ever fully reach a reality where a farmer is managing everything from the office?

A: Yes I do, and I don’t believe it will take 50 years to get there. I don’t believe we will completely go away from being in the field, farmers will just spend their time doing different things. Rather than operating equipment, much or all of that will be done by the machines and the systems that support them. Farmers time will not be spent on making the right decision in the field aided by more and more automation. Soil analysis, moisture management and other important data will more efficiently flow into systems that will initially be managed by the insights of the farmer manager. More and more of that will be automated as well, but I believe there will always be a human in the loop at some point to confirm decisions or put them into action. 

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