Jul 29, 2014
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March 2014 Archive for In the Shop

RSS By: Dan Anderson, Farm Journal

As a farm machinery mechanic and writer, Dan brings a hands-on approach that only a pro can muster. Along with his In the Shop blog, Dan writes a column by the same name as well as the Shop Series for Farm Journal magazine. Always providing practical information, he is a master at tackling technical topics and making them easy for all of our readers to understand. He and his wife, Becky, live near Bouton, Iowa.

The Downside of Battery-Powered Lights

Mar 26, 2014

 The hot new trend in mechanic's lights is battery-powered lights that use high-tech LED "bulbs" for illumination. 

The new lights are pretty impressive. Just a few years ago, LED lights were somewhat feeble, tended to be directional, and had poor battery longevity. The new battery-powered shop lights are incredibly bright, diffuse their illumination nicely, and have decent battery longevity before they need recharged.

They also have a steep price. Figure on $80 to $180 for a professional-grade, battery-powered, LED-type shop light. They come in many shapes and sizes, and the prices vary as widely as the design.

As I've noted in previous blogs, I have an ongoing quest for good illumination. I've tried just about every light that's come down the road. It's hard to beat the price of a good ol' mechanic's light, the ones with an incandescent bulb in a metal reflector. But I get tired of getting burned on the metal reflectors, and incandescent bulbs last about one day before I drop the light and shatter the bulb. Shop lights with florescent bulbs are okay, but they tend to be dim and the light they cast is bluish, which can be annoying. Lights that use LED bulbs are bright, stand up to getting dropped dozens of times, and stay relatively cool to the touch. I had a nice battery-powered LED-type "trouble light" that worked pretty good, but it fell victim to what, for me, is a downside to battery-powered lights.

Maybe it's just me, but I tend to forget I've got a light hanging inside or underneath a machine, and the battery-powered lights eventually go dead. Which is no problem--just stick them in the charger and they re-charge nicely. My problem is that once the light goes dead, I forget the light is there and either start the machine or send it back to the customer. There are two battery-powered lights riding around on combines that I forgot to remove once repairs were finished last fall.

Sounds stupid, but I may have to go back to corded shop lights simply because the cords dangle out of the machine and run across the floor as a reminder for me to remove the light when I'm done with repairs. 

The fanciest technology in the world fails in the hands of a fool.

 

What Will Be "Factory" In The Future?

Mar 23, 2014

 I was a teenager when a local farmer got a new 4520 Deere tractor, complete with a "factory" cab. It seemed a stretch of the imagination when that farmer declared that, "Someday, every tractor will come from the factory with a cab."

Thirty years later, I installed in a combine one of the first aftermarket yield monitors sold at our dealership. The programming and calibrating was intimidating. The results were sporadic and nobody knew how to use the information. A few mechanics chuckled when the regional representive for our dealership's manufacturer boldly stated that, "In a few years every combine will come from the factory with a yield monitor--and more."

In the past year, many tractors sold at our dealership have been pre-wired for various kinds of high technology that connects each machine continuously with the farm office, the dealership, the local co-op, heck, maybe with Mars and Venus, for all I know. Very few farmers pay the fee to enable the technology, very few see value in all the interconnectivity. One of our young mechanics who understands all the new technology told me, "In a few years, you're going to be fixing machines in the field without every leaving the shop."

Tractors with cabs were more expensive than tractors without cabs, but farmers quickly learned to appreciate heaters, air conditioners and assorted creature comforts. The price of yield monitors is now buried in the base price of new combines, but many farmers would feel lost without a continuous feed of yield and moisture as they harvest crops. In the future, tractors and combines and sprayers will be wirelessly linked and capable of exchanging information that we didn't know we wanted or needed to exchange.

Innovation and technology are wonderful, making our lives easier and hopefully increasing yields and improving profits. It's going to be interesting to see what we come to expect as "factory" in the future, and how much we're willing to pay for it.

What's The Point Of Keeping Extra Parts?

Mar 20, 2014

 I'm in the process of switching to a different service truck. That means I have to transfer all my tools, along with an assortment of spare parts, to the new vehicle. The good news is that I've found several tools I either thought I'd lost--or forgot I had. The bad news is that I'm faced with deciding how many spare machinery parts I really need to keep on the truck.

It's wonderful when I'm out in the country to have the exact part I need stashed on the truck. It saves the time and cost of driving back to the dealership for parts. At one time I thought I could use my years of experience to predict which common parts I should keep on-board. My experiences today of excavating from the depths of my "old" service truck a hundred or more dusty, rusty parts that I've carried for more than 10 years without ever using them hints that maybe it's useless to try and predict which parts I should carry. 

The challenge of predicting and carrying critical parts is two-fold for me. First, the manufacturer is constantly changing and upgrading parts, so it's not unusual for a belt or bearing to go out-of-date or be replaced in a year or less, leaving me with a stock of parts on my truck that's not the "latest and greatest." And second, I flat out can't remember what parts I've got stashed, and where I stashed them.

My co-worker, the Great and Mighty Sparky, has a photographic memory, and knows exactly where on his truck every nut, bolt, and gasket is, and can burrow through his boxes and containers to find exactly what he needs. Heck, he even remembers what parts I've got on MY truck, and where I stashed them. I have, in desperation, been known to call him and ask where I should look on my truck to find misplaced parts.

Which raises the question, how do farmers keep track of all their extra parts and pieces? I've seen a few farmers who have professional-grade bins and cabinets with parts categorized under alpha-numeric system that allowed them to know exactly where things were. Most farmers, however, have a memory-based filing system that relies heavily on standing in front of cabinets and bins while muttering, "I know I bought an extra one of those last year, and I remember putting it in a special place so I wouldn't forget where I put it..."

We all know how well that system works... 

Killing Time Efficiently

Mar 16, 2014

 A customer came through the shop the other day and was bluntly honest: "I've done everything I can do to get ready without getting equipment out of the shed. I'd normally be putting on anhydrous this time of year, getting the planter out and checking it over, and getting ready to roll, but this year there's still two feet of frost in the ground and it's going to be a couple weeks at the earliest before I get in the field. For the first time in years, I'm all caught up and I've got nothing to do."

Okay, we all know there's always SOMEthing to do on a farm, but we all know the way the guy feels. This year is driving everybody nuts with a winter that refuses to go away and a spring that refuses to arrive. Here are a few things to do now that will save time and improve efficiency once planting weather arrives and we're all busier than we want to be.

-Hook up the planter to the tractor, install all the monitors and displays and controllers, and spend an afternoon checking calibrations, set-ups, and other programmed information. Hook a battery charger to the tractor's batteries to ensure the batteries maintain at least 11.5 volts so all the electronic gadgetry has enough power to operate correctly. Some of you are doing some pretty sophisticated things with mapping, prescription seeding, and wireless transfer of information, so now is a good time to make sure you have all the bells and whistles ringing and tooting properly.

-If you have a new generation seed monitor that allows you to monitor seed spacing, row unit down pressure, and change those variables on-the-go, make sure you know how to adeptly read, understand and alter those values. 

-If you use automatic row shutoffs, be sure the turn-on and turn-off values are appropriate for the speed you will be planting. Be sure your seed monitor has a valid speed source, whether it is radar, ground speed or GPS-based. 

-In short, spend time sitting in the cab getting re-aquainted with your planter control systems. For some of  you, that means making sure the lights for each row on your seed monitor blink on or off when a long-stemmed screwdriver is passed back and forth in front of each seed tube's seed sensor eye. For others, it means calibrating and coordinating up to four or more consoles, displays, monitors, laptops, iPads and smartPhones in an array along one side of your tractor cab that rivals anything on the Space Shuttle. 

And when you're done checking the electronics, do a quick inventory and make sure you're stocked up on talc/graphite, spare seed tube sensors, drill shaft shear bolts and shear pins, marker arm shear bolts, aerosol contact cleaner for cleaning electrical connectors, and all the other things that experience has taught you to carry in the cab when planting.

How Much Will You Pay For Advice?

Mar 02, 2014

 I give out lots of advice while I'm fixing farm equipment. My job is to turn wrenches, and that's what customers pay for. But more and more, the way I fix farm equipment is to push buttons on display screens, download new software or recalibrate misbehaving computerized systems. 

So if I come to your farm and fix your combine without ever touching a wrench, should you be billed the same hourly rate? How 'bout if you call me over the phone and I spend 15 minutes talking you through a recalibration procedure---should you pay for those 15 minutes?

One of the biggest challenges facing equipment dealerships is how to fund "technology mechanics." Most dealerships now have one or more bright-eyed young people who specialize in installing, calibrating and repairing auto-steer, swath control and yield monitor systems. More and more, repairs or upgrades to those high-tech systems can be done over the phone or remotely via cell phone or satellite links between the dealership and individual machines.

Some dealerships still charge by the hour, per visit, per call, per situation. Others have gone to an annual subscription fee that buys the farmer a specific number of hours of consultations or repairs, whether they be on-farm, over the phone or via satellite. A few dealerships are charging a "per acre" fee, assuming that the more acres a farmer covers, the more tech-related calls will be needed.

It's hard to write a check for thousands of dollars just so you'll be able to talk to somebody when your auto-steer isn't working. It feels "wrong" to pay in advance for a service that you may or may not use. But the handwriting is on the wall that dealerships have to figure out how to pay the salaries of the tech experts that give "free" advice to fix high-tech systems on farm equipment. 

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