Farming is a hidden champion of digital transformation: in terms of digital platforms and autonomous vehicles, the sector is ahead of the automotive industry. Claas exemplifies how digital transformation can be successful in an environment that appears conservative, but has a single-minded focus on efficiency.
People in farming and agricultural engineering don’t often get steamed up about things. But a few months back, Germany’s entire farming sector was metaphorically up in arms. Asked about plans to roll out the new 5G cellular network in rural areas, Germany’s Research Minister Anja Karliczek opined that 5G “didn’t need to be available at every milk churn.” “What do you mean,” many asked themselves. If not there – then where?
Rural areas are exactly where high speed 5G is needed, as it turns out. “Agricultural technology is high-tech”, concludes a study by Germany’s
Hans Böckler Foundation, which researches into work trends. According to the study, the farming industry in Germany has long been an innovation and technology leader on the world stage. Making far more use of digital sensors, electronics and software, the farming value chain already beats the auto industry hands down in terms of digital technology adoption. Its exacting standards are even embraced by industries that are at the vanguard of technology, such as aerospace. How does this digital maturity fit in with the industry’s image as highly conservative? An industry that is struggling to keep its young people on board, and whose centres of activity are in the middle of the countryside miles from urban centres?
A trip to Harsewinkel, a small Westphalian town between Münster and Bielefeld, 25,000 inhabitants, fields, forests – and a global corporation:
Claas. Harsewinkel, the Claas Group’s head office, is the heart of the company. But Claas also operates a strictly distributed organizational structure, devolving responsibility and decision-making to its locations around the world. This ensures new ideas and products can grow and flourish, rather than being stifled by formalities or fears.
Claas also bundles digital expertise at its headquarters in Harsewinkel, Germany
Martin Hawlas is Head of Claas Corporate R&D, including technology and innovation management. For Hawlas, Claas is on to a good thing with an innovation if customers can instantly see the value and say, “This will pay off for me.” Granted, every industry sets store by efficiency, but for farmers it’s in their genes. There is only a brief window of opportunity for harvesting, and the financial success of an entire year comes down to the yield of just a few days. “That’s why our customers are open to any innovations that make their farms more efficient during these intensely busy periods,” says Hawlas. That means better and better machines. It also means IT tools – which are driving the transformation of the Westphalian agricultural engineering group into an organization with growing digital expertise. Three other locations in the Claas universe – along with the head office – testify to this digital evolution.
Greenhouse: co-working-space for digital experiments in agriculture
100 metres from Gate 1 of the head office, the building of a one-time car dealership is home to the Claas Creative Center. Dubbed the “greenhouse”, this is an open space where seven teams are working on innovations such as collaborative robots (or “cobots”), 3D printing and augmented reality. The concept is reminiscent of urban co-working spaces, the difference being that the 40 or so Claas employees don’t sport long beards and hipster clothes, but have their shirts tucked tidily into their trousers. This is Harsewinkel, not Berlin. Kai Wallasch is Head of Product Lifestyle Management Predevelopment at Claas. “This means I’m free to experiment,” he explains; his remit is to bring new digital technologies into the company. “Slowly and gradually,” he says, “Always with a view to making the benefits clear.”
Our customers are open to innovations that make their farms more efficient during these intensely busy periods.
What does that mean in practice? A case in point is Augmented Reality, or AR. Using AR googles, the technology can enrich the real world with additional information. Claas uses AR googles both in-house and in client applications. “In our production, AR helps staff to get machine adjustments exactly right. On the customer side, we’re able to provide a completely new style of operating manual. Instead of leafing through a booklet or browsing an on-screen PDF, customers just put on the googles. They can have settings explained, and even get pointers about possible malfunctions.”
Another key innovation touchpoint in the Greenhouse is the work on a new CRM system. In a bid to get to know customers even better, Claas is designing a digital platform that maintains a
constant flow of data between the company, dealer and customer. The portal is being co-developed with a dozen external CRM experts, who are based in the Claas Creative Center during the project. Development center for smart machines
The drive from Harsewinkel to Dissen, in the Lower Saxony part of the Teutoburg Forest, takes about 20 minutes. South of the town centre, Claas opened the head office of its new subsidiary
Class E-Systems, just under two years ago. “We’re a dedicated development centre,” says Managing Director Carsten Hoff. “And our developments always have an interface with the machine. Around 200 people work in Dissen, developing steering and driver assistance systems, and equipping machine parts with sensors and cameras. Advanced workstation terminals are much in evidence throughout the offices.
Where to chop is automatically controlled by the vehicle system with a camera
“Developments in automated and autonomous driving are particularly promising,” says Carsten Hoff. This is where farming and agricultural technology have in some areas overtaken the automotive industry. Controlled by GPS, fields are planted, fertilised and harvested with millimetre precision, and drivers are often only there to supervise. “Of course, we have the advantage that our machines work on private fields, not on public roads,” explains Hoff. This might get rid of the legal constraints, but it makes no difference to the customers’ demands for absolute precision and safety. “Especially in countries like Australia and the USA, where farmers often cultivate huge areas of land, we’ll be seeing autonomous machines in a few years’ time.”
365FarmNet: start-up meets corporate
From countryside to capital city: among the numerous creative agencies and law firms lining Hausvogtei Square in Berlin’s Central District is the two-storey office of the Claas subsidiary
365FarmNet. The company sees itself as a start-up under the wings of a large corporate. It’s headed by Maximilian von Löbbecke, a seasoned company founder from a family of bankers with a range of agricultural businesses – and therefore highly suited to a job that combines the modern digital economy with the heritage of the company.
To visualize the crop yield, Claas combines Data Analytics and AR
The 365FarmNet product is a comprehensive portal to manage every aspect of a farm’s business. The name Claas is conspicuous by its absence, as is the characteristic green of the Claas corporate livery. “The balancing act between corporate and start-up culture will only work if you can really stay independent of the corporate ecosystem,” explains von Löbbecke. Independence is also imperative, he says, because the tool functions as a neutral platform connecting all the machines on a farm, whatever the make. “Very few farmers rely on a single equipment brand,” says von Löbbecke. “But they do expect the machines to be seamlessly networked.” Firstly, because they want to know how well every area of their farm is performing. Secondly, because official requirements demand ever more complex documentation, and this can no longer be handled with paper and pen. A digital platform is the obvious solution. “In most cases, the reason why customers use the platform is not that they see themselves as digital pioneers. They use it because they’re seeking the highest possible efficiency.” This is no different today than it was almost 100 years ago – only the tools are now more and more digital.