It took us exactly 15 hours to fly from San Francisco to Düsseldorf and drive by car to Harsewinkel. The town on the river Ems is a “one-industry city” – agricultural machinery manufacturer CLAAS has dominated the local economy for almost a century to such a degree that there has been a fierce debate in the town for many years about adding the byname “Harvester City”. We too want to visit CLAAS, because the company is one of the most progressive and innovative players in the global smart product economy.
Generally speaking, agriculture has become a sector globally that has rapidly, courageously and systematically taken the path towards digitalization. Besides CLAAS, this movement also includes giants like John Deere and Bayer Crop Science, as well as highly specialized technology companies and biotech start-ups. This is not surprising as there are few other industries that face the enormous complexity and such fierce competitive pressures as agriculture. Technical, biological, topographical, meteorological, and chemical issues are added to questions regarding organization, process design as well as cost and quality management. Developing agriculture for the 21st century that is both efficient and at the same time sustainable is a huge project that cannot succeed without digitalization.
Work at CLAAS KGaA mbH in this area is driven by the conviction that yields from agricultural production can be increased through the introduction of intelligent and above all interconnected systems over the next 20 years as dramatically as they were through mechanization in the 1950s. CLAAS has a number of intelligent systems in order to improve agricultural processes through the use of digital tools. The company assumes that there are four elements that form the foundations of digitalization in agriculture: global positioning systems (GPS), digital data processing, sensor technology and camera systems, and communications systems. The basis is provided by a mechanical system – a combine harvester or some other agricultural machine – which is developed into a smart product and incorporated into a universal digital system. Networking vehicles along a process chain results in higher capacity utilization of the systems de-ployed, more efficient use and thereby in corresponding cost advantages.
The example of core agricultural processes demonstrates how this works in detail. A central element of this networked architecture is the telemetric solution “Fleet View”, which is installed in CLAAS machinery. It allows everyone involved in the harvesting process to view, in real time, who is where and when, or at least should be. This results in combine harvesters being able to operate and be deployed with maximum efficiency without breaks forced on them. However, the coordination of vehicles via a comprehensive telemetric solution is just one element in the digital vision that CLAAS calls “ Farming 4.0”. The intelligent agricultural machines are also used to gather comprehensive data concerning the environment and yields (in some cases including GPSbased soil sampling) using a large number of sensors and to transmit these to the “farm cloud”, where they are consolidated and processed.
The outcome is a complete georeferenced map of yields and potential – a perfect digital representation of the field that provides information on the vehicle’s GPS position, yields and moisture. The constantly updated map makes it possible to work specific subareas of land – for example spreading fertilizer, irrigating, sowing or selecting the right time to harvest. Seamless tracking by vehicles equipped with intelligence of course also forms the basis for highly efficient technical and economic fleet management – from preventive maintenance and optimized deployment planning and charging to massive fuel savings. Another factor is soil protection thanks to “controlled traffic”, where vehicles are controlled very precisely using GPS, keeping vehicle tracks in the field to a minimum. And, last but not least, the system is open for future smart products. Whether sowing robots or drone-based monitoring, autonomous agricultural machinery or machine learning systems – in future it will be possible to integrate them all into the network and to interconnect them with other smart products.
Our travel sketch doesn’t really do justice to CLAAS and their vision of Farming 4.0. The list of possibilities that a comprehensive smart product network offers in the agricultural arena could go on and on. But there is another question that goes a great deal farther. Global agriculture is being seen with increasingly critical eyes around the world. Growing monopolization and concentration, the gradual disappearance of regional suppliers, poor quality controls in international supply chains, the destruction of soils and crop diversity by single-crop farming, pollution from pesticides, and the dramatic loss of biodiversity – you don’t have to be an ecological fanatic to view these developments with a feeling of unease. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been warning for years of an increasing gap between the growing demand for food and serious structural deficits in global agriculture.
Digitalization could speed up the nascent sea change. The enormous boost to efficiency promised by smart products could cancel out the disastrous equation whereby profits from the land can only be secured through the size of operations, standardization, single-crop farming and chemical resources that are ultimately achieved at the cost of sustainability. This would be a digital revolution that really deserved its name. We leave Harsewinkel and head down to the south of Germany.