By Nikolaus Fecht
Agricultural machinery is ahead of the game when it comes to digitalization. The standardized ISO Bus, created by the agricultural machinery sector 17 years ago, is proof of this, according to Dr. Heribert Reiter, Managing Director Research and Development at Agco GmbH in Marktoberdorf. The harmonized data bus enables machinery and systems from different competitors to communicate with one another.
"Agricultural tractors are the most complicated vehicles there are," explains Reiter. "Unlike a car, a typical tractor has to be able to cope with both roads and off-road terrain. A tractor is also an open system that offers connections to devices of all kinds from different manufacturers. Cars and other vehicles are closed systems."
By introducing the ISO Bus, agricultural machinery developers added a standardized data connection to the existing mechanical, electrical and hydraulic versions, allowing the tractor and device to "talk" to one another. Since the ISO Bus was introduced, drivers have been able to operate various applications centrally via the digital controls.
Requirement: fast internet
According to Reiter, the next step is for machines from all manufacturers to be connected wirelessly via a fast data network and clouds. "I hope that, once the new, fast 5G grid has been installed everywhere, all areas without reception will finally be identified and resolved," says Reiter. "I would like fast internet to be available everywhere soon, including in the countryside. Only then will we be able to use our full potential. What is the point of having such high-performance hardware if we cannot put it to optimum use?"
It is debatable as to whether the agricultural industry can learn anything from Industrie 4.0. Reiter stresses, "The agricultural machinery sector was active in this field a very, very long time before the term 'Industrie 4.0' was introduced." According to him, innovations range from a lane guidance system with accuracy of two centimeters, satellite-guided assistants and self-teaching automation systems. "We already have the individual systems. The issue now is connectivity," says Reiter.
In order to present the opportunities of digitalization to farmers live and in color, his company is working with partners in Tänikon, in the Swiss canton of Thurgau, to set up the Swiss Future Farm. From September 2018, it will aim to make precision farming visible, tangible and easy to understand.
Agco's Managing Director knows that agriculture still has a long way to go when it comes to digitalization. In the long term, digitalization will not be limited to how the agricultural machinery is used, but will also have an impact on fields as diverse as service, business management and maintenance. "Digitalization will make agriculture more efficient, for example by enabling the use of fertilizers, pesticides and seeds to be optimized according to requirements," explains Reiter. "In the future, the farmer will know the precise location of every single plant. When a plant becomes ill, it will receive exactly the right medicine, just like a human."
Reiter believes that digitalization will be a common theme of every aspect of agriculture. Maximum digital transparency will allow the farmer to improve the use of all equipment and processes on his land, increasing yields in an extremely sustainable manner. Reiter explains, "Although agriculture needs digital transparency, the new data protection regulations regarding personal data always have to be taken into account."
CLAAS E-Systems KGaA mbH & Co KG from Dissen has also been working on digitalization in agricultural machinery for many years. The company established a new standard more than ten years ago by launching its telematics system. "Since then, farmers and agricultural contractors have benefited from automated documentation and optimized use of their machinery," says Managing Director Dr. Carsten Hoff. "This allows efficient machinery management and resource-saving use of materials."
Connecting multi-stage processes
Industrie 4.0 is providing vital inspiration for the agricultural machinery industry to connect multi-stage processes. Hoff explains: "This inspiration is hugely important for agriculture, too. Connecting machinery and transmitting work documentation automatically create transparency and prevent the errors that can occur during manual transfer. The process becomes more efficient and less prone to error." Producers could also learn from Farming 4.0, such as how standardized interfaces like ISO Bus and ISO XML enable cross-manufacturer connection and fast, simple data exchange.
A fleet logistics system from Claas optimizes harvest logistics and also works across manufacturers. An app provides real-time information on the position of the combine harvesters and how full their grain tanks are. As a result, the harvest fleet's removal team can be coordinated in such a way that the combine harvesters can work without any downtime at all. "Our system uses a normal tablet PC, which the user can easily use with existing machinery from different brands. He can continue to use the existing technology and connect it to the very latest machinery," explains Hoff.
Connection for efficient use
Connected machinery delivers valuable information that optimizes use and prevents unnecessary downtime, so that users can utilize their machinery more efficiently. Remote service also makes the machinery more reliable. "This enables agricultural machinery dealers to expand their role as a partner for the customer," explains Hoff. "When a malfunction occurs, the farmer can diagnose the problem quickly and accurately even from a distance, thus minimizing the machinery downtime. Targeted analysis of sensor data indicates when wearing parts need to be replaced, so that expensive consequential damage is avoided."
Automated milking technology
Digital transformation is also changing the role of farmers. "Our customers have professionalized rapidly in recent years," confirms Ulrich Rassenhövel, Vice President Equipment Sales at Gea Group Aktiengesellschaft in Düsseldorf, one of the largest manufacturers of milking machinery. The last ten years have largely seen milking machinery take its first tentative steps towards digitalization. Gea has automated a large number of products, including those for milking, feeding and refrigeration.
Rassenhövel remembers, "It was a step-by-step process, from automatic cluster removal to milking robots as a fully-automated solution." As well as digitalizing connections between its own systems, the company is also looking to connect its products with those from other providers.
An app makes cowsheds transparent
In the same way as the digital transformation of other industrial sectors, Gea is already implementing Farming 4.0. Rassenhövel: "One of the things we are working on is systems that work via an app. These are tailored very closely to the customer’s needs, for example an app that enables cows to be localized within the cowshed." This lets the farmer monitor individual cows or entire herds remotely via the internet and initiate targeted measures for his herd.
The objectives of Farming 4.0 include efficient management of the agricultural operation and animal-friendly cow husbandry. Demand for these IT aids is enormous given the constantly increasing size of agricultural businesses today, with hundreds of cows often found in a single cowshed. But Farming 4.0 will take a joint approach. Gea is therefore working with 30 agricultural machinery manufacturers and a Berlin software agency that has developed a solution for complete farm management.
Training trading partners
Rassenhövel considers the greatest challenge to be services that go beyond agricultural production itself, such as predictive maintenance. "We need to provide our trading partners with intensive training here. Instead of simply providing support with the mechanics of agricultural machinery, like before, they now need to be able to deal with electrical engineering and electronics," he explains. "That is why we are currently working on overhauling our training concepts. Farmers will only be able to make effective use of all the new opportunities if we train professionals that can advise them accordingly."
Lemken GmbH & Co. KG from Alpen has specialized in technology for soil tilling, sowing and crop protection for almost 240 years. The company's state-of-the-art solutions include parcel-specific cultivation, for example based on yield maps. Monitoring via geocoordinated satellite images from space is on its way and could be the next big thing. "In the future, farmers will be able to influence the fertilization process better, as satellite images will tell them the precise state of their crops," says Managing Director Anthony van der Ley. According to him, farmers will soon be able to determine the ideal time for crop protection and fertilization thanks to weather data such as temperature, precipitation and wind.
Expanding network availability
However, the Managing Director sees network availability as a major problem. "5G networks offer enough performance to link all the connected devices without bottlenecks and transmit the volume of data needed," explains van der Ley. He goes on to warn that, "The telecommunications industry really needs to get moving here. With data volumes increasing all the time, 5G networks are fundamental to Farming 4.0."
Platform for data exchange
The agricultural machinery industry is not one to complain, but to take things into its own hands. "Unlike in the USA, there are few farmers in Europe who purchase all their machinery, devices and software systems from a single manufacturer," explains van der Ley. "But farmers today cannot connect all of their numerous devices from different manufacturers with each other."
With no solutions available on the market, three years ago, Lemken joined forces with several agricultural machinery manufacturers to develop the world's first internet-based platform for data exchange, enabling every farmer, manufacturer and service providers in this industrial segment to get connected. The Agrirouter is based on industrial EDP solutions from SAP and is intended to significantly reduce typical data conversion problems and the number of communication interfaces.
Communicating across manufacturers
A real-life example shows how simple the approach is: A farmer is planning the fertilization of his fields on a PC or a tablet. Using an app from provider A, he determines the quantity of fertilizer for the various parcels based on soil maps, soil samples and predicted yields. The farmer then sends the work order remotely to the communication unit of provider B's crop protection device. The electronics in the device combine the order data with the GPS data transmitted from provider C's tractor. When an employee then works on the individual parcels, the work is simultaneously documented. The data is automatically added to the 'plot card' (a chronological record of farming activity) of provider D, which is linked to provider E's accounting program.
Keeping an eye on the value chain
This joint project is an enormous step on the road to digitalized agriculture and Farming 4.0. But how is it different from Industrie 4.0? For van der Ley, the difference lies in the large field of application, which extends far beyond the processes within a single industrial operation. "Farming 4.0 means that a large number of different partners have to work together and are now able to do so," emphasizes van der Ley. "It is all about implementing the vision 'from farm to fork', meaning the process chain from food production to the end consumer."
But Farming 4.0 depends on every single piece of agricultural machinery in the production chain - if one link fails, the entire process collapses. "“Requirements for the reliability of each piece of agricultural machinery will continue to grow," says van der Ley. "And with them, the requirements for service will also increase, in order to ensure machine availability." Customers today already use software updates to help them utilize machinery better and more economically. In future, the service this currently requires is to be replaced by "updates over the air."
High-precision crop protection
Digital technology is also playing an increasingly vital role in the agricultural machinery from Amazonen-Werke H. Dreyer GmbH & Co. KG in Hasbergen-Gaste, near Osnabrück. "Using sensor technology, our machinery can already reliably detect crops and their status and treat them accordingly," explains Managing Director Christian Dreyer. "For example, the rod system for crop protection is guided electronically over the crops with extreme precision." ISO Bus electronics save the run and transmit it digitally to a higher-level computer system in the agricultural business for documentation.
Smart technology also makes it easier for farmers to adhere to the new Fertilizer Regulation, which prescribes efficient fertilization based on nutrient balances. With one eye on crop protection, "the aim is only to apply crop protection agents where they are really needed," says Dreyer. This allows their use to be progressively reduced.