While covering a recent ag machinery conference in Iowa, Ag Equipment Intelligence heard nothing to suggest the technological evolution in agriculture will slow any time soon.

Jeff Shick, Eaton Corp.

Jeff Schick, global director of Eaton Corp.’s ag and forestry market segment, said increasing demand for food, limited natural resources and rising input costs would challenge engineers to find innovative solutions to production agriculture.

Schick, a former executive for new product development at Deere & Co., addressed OEM suppliers at the 25th annual Agriculture Machinery Conference held May 3-5 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Growing Exports. Agriculture is already a huge business in the U.S., with 4.1 million jobs in direct employment and 25 million employed when the allied food and fiber industries are added, Schick said. Last year, the U.S. exported $35 billion more in agricultural goods than it imported, up from just $5 billion in 2005. But Schick emphasized that agriculture is rapidly becoming a global business, with Brazil and Russia adding acres and most other nations in need of new farming technology to keep up with expanding global demand for ag products.

“Those technologies are going to have to come from somewhere, and it seems to me that the people in this room have a significant head start over most of your global counterparts,” said Schick. “I’m firmly convinced that we’re at a tipping point of a literal explosion in agricultural technology.”

Eaton Corp. is an $11.9 billion business that makes electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, drivetrain and powertrain components and systems for a variety of industries, including agriculture. Some 334 attendees discussed a number of technology issues affecting agriculture, including future trends in computer-aided design, fluid power technology, and interim Tier IV emissions requirements and their implications for the equipment market.

Manufacturers also discussed design and market challenges associated with biomass harvesting equipment. Two Iowa farmers showed engineers how they’ve used field data gathered by precision ag systems to analyze field conditions, solve soil problems and boost yields without wasting seed and fertilizer. There will be more to come from farm mechanization, Schick says. In the near term, the technological advancements involve familiar areas like genetically modified plant and animals, computers, wireless communications, GPS, clean diesel power, autonomous vehicles and hydraulics.

Electro Hydraulics. More difficult farm mechanization challenges could be solved with “electro hydraulics” — the marriage of electronics and hydraulics to improve the performance of agricultural components, especially in precision agriculture. A driving force behind this is the cost of inputs: Farmers spent $241 billion in 2007 on fuel, seed, fertilizer, pesticides and other related items, up 39% from 2002.

“Your challenge,” Schick told the engineers, “is to create new products that help make prescription agriculture more reliable, effective and integrated, while bringing costs down to a level that will let farmers everywhere take advantage.”

He added that most equipment operators wouldn’t be highly skilled machine operators or mechanics, “so the systems you design will have to pretty much be able to take care of themselves.”

Schick offered glimpse of the future, as he sees it, with electro hydraulic technology guiding the way. “Today we can design a system that tells the operator when to bring their tractor in for an oil change. Tomorrow, that system will be able to predict system failures and schedule maintenance required to prevent that. The system may even order the necessary parts and schedule the service day and mechanic to install them.

“And the day after tomorrow, that monitoring capability may be built into the components themselves, such as hydraulic fluids that report their condition, or hoses that tell you in advance exactly where and when they’re going to fail.” The need to conserve water will demand technological innovation of irrigation valves, sprayers and the like, he said.

“Intelligent systems will measure soil moisture and deliver water where and when it’s needed — and a precise quantity of water.” The dairy and livestock industries may see automated feeders that tailor food delivery to individual animal requirements, and may be combined with animal identification systems to meet increasing safety regulations.

Repurposed Tools. Specialized equipment that supports orchards, vineyards, and vegetable, citrus and coffee farms may also be “re-examined, re-purposed and redesigned to be more efficient,” said Schick. “Your challenge is to incorporate these technologies into robust, cost-effective systems that will work anywhere in the world, with minimal or nonexistent support infrastructure,” he said.

“While you’re busy meeting those challenges, you can be sure world governments will continue to adopt evermore stringent emission regulations for the power plants you use. “Not only will you have to deal with rising fuel costs, but also compensate for the reduction in available engine power caused by emission control systems. It brings a whole new meaning to doing more with less.”