In a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, John Deere has built a new home for its Integrated Solutions Group (ISG) tech specialists that is as unique in its design as software once was to farm machines. The new ultramodern facility is designed to help engineers and scientists collaborate and reach innovative solutions in the shortest possible time.
“That’s so critically important,” says John Stone, senior vice president of John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group. “Because a new tractor or combine program might take us three or four years to develop, we’re deploying new software products to the market every 60 days. That kind of pace is different than the rest of Deere. That kind of pace means we need an open and reconfigurable work environment that is very collaborative.”
Deere’s new ISG office is designed to be exactly that. Since the official ribbon cutting last spring, over 800 employees have moved in to call it home.
“We have about 830 employees here at this building,” notes Stone. “In total, ISG has about 2,000 employees globally, 80 per cent of us are from various engineering disciplines. Software is a very predominant skill. Robotics is also a predominant skill. Computer vision and machine learning are emerging skills we’re investing heavily in today, as well as mechatronics (mechanical and electrical engineering).
“We’re trying to develop and deploy technologies that make machines smarter, more precise and easier to use, so farmers can be more profitable, more productive and more sustainable.”
“We spent a lot of time talking about how do we provide the right environment for people to sit, meet and collaborate as well as get the work done,” says Laura Barringer, engineer in charge of quality supply management and facilities.
The open floor plan was integral to that, and it creates areas that can accommodate a variety of additional activities.
“We have these things called hackathons, an opportunity to solve problems in a short amount of time,” she continues. “I don’t know if you noticed the big garage door, but for our ribbon cutting that tractor was right in [the atrium]. If we wanted to bring equipment in to use or demonstrate, we could.”
Deere was the brand out of the gate early when it came to integrating technology into ag equipment, and it wants to keep that pole position in the tech race. It’s been making significant investments in R&D aside from the new ISG building. The purchase of high-tech firm Blue River Technologies in 2017 has been a big part of those efforts.
“With the acquisition we made two years ago of Blue River Technologies, (we’re developing) the ability for a smart spraying system to look at a field and understand this green leafy plant is a crop that needs me as a sprayer to take care of it, and that green leafy plant beside it is a weed that needs to be killed,” explains Stone. “So I spray only that weed. That can result in up to an 80 per cent reduction in herbicide use. That can allow for new prescriptions to take care of herbicide resistant weeds in new ways.
“80 per cent reduction in herbicides. That’s a future we all want. These technologies can do that. So Deere started to recognize the importance of precision agriculture back in the mid ‘90s. In 1993 we formed what was called at that time Precision Farming. Last year we celebrated 25 years of the Intelligent Solutions Group. Shortly thereafter we got to celebrate the opening of this building.”
“In 2006 to 2012, that’s when we really started investing in the digital operations,” adds Barringer.
“We like to say make every seed count. Make every drop (of crop protection products) count, and get every kernel off at harvest,” says Stone. “That’s what we’re here to do.”
Sustainable is a word used a lot in precision ag technology discussions, and Stone thinks it has more than one context when it comes to farming.
“I think we all think about the environmental aspect of sustainability,” he says. “Precision agriculture is a huge contribution to that. I visited some family farms in the last few weeks; many of them were in their fourth or fifth generations on the same land. That family farm, that family business, has been operating for 100, 120, 150 years in some cases. So sustainability is critical to these farmers. That’s their livelihood. They have to take good care of that land. That’s the other aspect of sustainability we like to talk about. Sustainability from an economic standpoint.”
After 25 years of investing in technology, it’s nothing new for Deere management to be promoting it as the path forward to becoming more efficient and profitable on the farm. And while many farmers didn’t see the value in technology in farm equipment — even with GPS — when it first started to become available, many now do.
To support those customers, part of the ISG building now houses Deere’s call-in centre, which employs 80 people that take calls from over 200 countries in six different languages.
“We had to teach some (equipment) operators how to use a mouse,” says Barringer of the early days in the call centre. “But today, obviously, the questions are more difficult than that.”