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Making machines smarter

By DONNELLE ELLER
An AP Exchange Story
URBANDALE — Many of the work areas in Deere & Co.’s nearly $33 million, light-filled technology center in Urbandale were cordoned off recently.
Employees behind the tape at Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group are developing new products, said Laura Barringer, quality, supply management and facilities manager, too sensitive for visitors to poke around and ask questions about.
The secrecy is understandable. The task the group faces is large, said John Stone, the division’s senior vice president.
Farmers across the U.S. face challenging weather, shrinking access to skilled workers, and a battle for profits.
“We’re trying to develop and deploy technology that makes machines smarter, more precise and easier to use so farmers can be more productive, more profitable and more sustainable,” Stone told The Des Moines Register.
Already, the group’s technology is doing things like helping tractors drive themselves using global positioning satellites; changing the rates used to plant seed, spray herbicides and apply fertilizers; and tracking yields, soil health and field moisture.
“We say, ‘make every seed count, make every drop count’ — in terms of products like fertilizer — and get every kernel off the field at harvest,” Stone said.
Stone said farmers tell the Moline, Illinois-based farm, construction and forestry equipment manufacturer they need machines that can do more, with fewer people living and working in rural communities. That’s a global issue, he said.
A North Dakota farmer told Stone “we’ve gone from having equipment operators on our farm to now just having drivers, because the skill level is reduced.”
“So what does that mean?” Stone said. “Our equipment has to become smarter, it has to be more automated, it has to do more jobs in the field and make that low-skilled operator perform as if he were a 20-year expert.”
Among the technology under development, Blue River Technology, a California company Deere purchased in 2017, is working on a smart spraying system that can distinguish a valued plant from a weed.
“It will kill that weed and only that weed,” Stone said. “Our tests can result in up to 80 percent reduction in herbicide use. … That’s the future we all want.”
One thing is clear: Deere’s new 134,000-square-foot building should make creating agriculture’s next innovative technology a little easier for its 800-some employees.
In the division’s old space, employees were stretched across three buildings, with employees up to a half mile away from each other.
State and local governments provided the company with about $7 million in tax credits for the project, Barringer said. The company has pledged to add about 30 jobs with the project.
The new building is filled with places for the company’s engineers, software developers and other professionals to collaborate, Barringer said.
A trip for coffee can turn into a spontaneous meeting between different teams who never could have met organically in the old space. “People bump into each other and have these great conversations,” she said.
The new space, which includes a massive recreation room that boasts pingpong, foosball and shuffleboard tables, is a plus when recruiting, Barringer said.
“It’s about recruiting and developing great talent,” she said. “It’s really important to us.”
Scattered throughout Deere’s new technology space are finds from the company’s archives, Barringer said.
For example, the leaping deer statue at the building’s entrance is one of only 14 worldwide. Charles Deere, the son of founder John Deere, commissioned them. The deer trademark was first registered in 1876, the company says.
And an 1874 plow in the company’s lobby was in the Smithsonian from 1975 to 1999 before being returned to Deere, Barringer said.