OK, so maybe there are more pressing matters facing our industry right now. But it’s my blog and I get to decide ...
Nearly 30 years in business media have taught me that when you get stuck on a topic and/or don’t know the right questions to ask, just get it out there ... Subscribers will tell you the questions to ask (and of whom). You’ll also receive the occasional comment about whether the columnist has made a sudden change in medication (you know who you are).
The current mind-bender is over autonomous (or semi-autonomous) farm machinery. The excitement is nearly universal and offer huge benefits in solving critical labor shortages, doing more with less, and timely applications. The remaining issues to work, I’m told are less technical than commercial, societal and regulatory.
This is not another rah-rah piece on the possibilities of the biggest disrupter on farming since the tractor doomed the fate of the draft horse. * Instead, the curmudgeon in me is expressing a few contrarian-type questions:
- Who has the most to lose?
- Who will create the friction that stands in the way?
- Could you and your business be one day left spitting the dust of someone else’s boots?
Let’s talk about the major line manufacturers. They can introduce “concept machines,” show evidence of R&D work and make technology acquisitions.
But here’s my question. What exactly has been the majors’ history in developing, proving and fully bringing to market products that will displace their own investments in manufacturing combines and tractors? Would they (or can they afford to) go “all out” on something that will eventually starve their cash cow?
“The Reality of Artificial Intelligence,” Dr. Scott Shearer, February 2019
“Semi-Autonomy: A More Realistic Solution to Farming,” Kraig Schulz, April 2017
“[Podcast:] Debating the Progress, Practicality & Potential of Autonomous Vehicles in Ag,” August 2016
Most agree that the real innovation in autonomy (as in many areas of ag) will come from niche specialists. Historically, the major-line OEMs have been able to sit and wait, and buy out the novel new competitor and then decide how strongly to pursue it.
But is it far-fetched to envision some other deep pockets coming with a different sales and service model for this next-generation technology, that could include but not be limited to farming applications?
I’ve come to recognize the yin/yang in disruptive innovation ... That with every effort made to prove out something new, there’s equal force toiling to hold onto existing turf. The ecosystem also includes lobbyists, labor unions, activists, to name a few.
The concentrated power of the majors can keep an idea tempered, and that’s their prerogative. But you as a dealer? Your value is as strong as your ensured relevance.
Think about Kodak Film and the digital camera. The railways and how they could’ve controlled the airline industry. How retail bookstores were so wrapped up in their infrastructure that they let Jeff Bezos decimate their distribution (and that of a lot of other industries too.). In each case, they couldn’t get out of their own way to see the possibilities. They were looking in the mirror instead of out the window.
The major OEMs are shrewder than they might get credit for. As long as you’re moving the heavy iron they’re pumping out, and you stick to your knitting (and their colors), this is daydream material.
But what if the “devil you don’t know” enters the picture with a different distribution/service model (heavy on electrical and battery-cell specialists). Or maybe direct sales, if it’s accepted legally that it’s the only way to compete with the dominating power of the status quo. That debate is happening now in electric vehicles.
One more question ... what do you see as the used equipment implications of all of this, when that day does arrive?
Ok. That’s it for this Tuesday morning. Now for comments and questions. Whaddya got? (Post here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Footnote: Apparently draft horse breeders, shoe and nail manufacturers, and labor unions weren’t prepared to slow down the tractor. And back then, apparently no one pointed out that there might be a snake or gopher allergic to the new-fangled machine.
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