Tech Tuesday
Ponder the Changing Tractor 'Interface'

Ponder the Changing Tractor 'Interface'

Control joysticks and big screens are the tractor norm these days for high-tech machinery.

I'm just back from an interesting trip to Germany where I was attending the opening of the new Agco-Fendt factory in Marktoberdorf, Bavaria. The state-of-the-art facility was part of a $300 million investment the company made to significantly update its capacity across its system. And at the same time they rolled out the new Fendt 500 - which will had to North America sometime later in 2013.

COMMON DESIGN: This is a familiar layout for a range of tractors - in this case the new Fendt 500 series - but it shows how a single screen and control arm can make operation easier for any user.

It struck me, however, as I looked at the cab controls on this new tractor that manufacturers have reached a new kind of commonality across operating platforms. Every tractor these days has a main control handle (or joystick), and a big screen for monitoring tractor and implement systems. While you can get into the finer points of how implements and tractors talk, but I was struck while in Germany (and after a big Case IH launch earlier this year) by the fact that engineers across all brands have hit upon a kind of tractor tech sweet spot.

They are aiming to end monitor proliferation in the cab. And by making every cab operating setup similar - and some cases exactly the same across several horsepower ranges - it makes it easier to get workers up to speed in these new machines.

Of course without ISO-compliant implements that can communicate to those cab monitors, this might not be possible. Yet the systems coming online will make easy to hitch up that big baler, plug it into the cab and hit the field. You can manage all the baler's systems off the same screen you manage the tractor. It's that simple.

Fendt, by the way, was one of the first to pull together controls onto a single joystick back in the 1990s. Other manufacturers were working to group controls all on the right side (sorry south paws), and with the rise of better monitors and industry standard controls,  it makes sense to have the monitor nearby.

There's no question that farmers with new equipment will get used to the "common interface" of ag equipment. And with the growing labor shortage, having that shared approach makes training the new employees easier than ever.

Robots on parade

Of course, during that Fendt rollout, they also showed off something we'll be talking more about in the future. They had a driverless tractor that worked in a kind of "slave" mode to a lead tractor. Called Guide Connect, it allows one operator to have two - or more - tractors in the field duplicating the same operation. Image an single driver managing three tractors running mowers in a hay field, or pulling precision-guided tillage tools or planters.

I've embedded a short video in this (which you can watch above) - even with the rain and darkness - you can see that the second tractor follows the first, but there is no driver in the second. This is no simple parlor trick and Fendt is working on Future Farm technology that will allow a wide range of potential new automation solutions. Whether automated tractors are in the near or distant future the talk about this technology is heating up and every manufacturer will be taking their own approach to the idea.

The Farm Futures Management Summit is approach. The two-day event - Jan. 3 and 4, 2013 will again be in St. Louis, at a new hotel location. You can learn more by visiting You'll find the draft agenda, hotel registration information and online signup for the event. Plan on joining us, it's a great program.

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