The Irony of Automated Machinery
Nov 02, 2013
Farm machinery has never been more durable. A century of intense design escalation, enhanced in recent decades by improved metallurgy and sophisticated manufacturing processes, has led to tractors, combines, sprayers and other farm machines that are stronger and more durable than any in history.
Yes, they still break down. But if you installed engines with comparable horsepower, or pulled equal loads, or hauled similar quantities of grain, hay or commodities in machines designed in the 1950s, there would be nothing left after a day's work but a pile of crumpled, crushed, smoking metal. We sometimes forget, when harvesting 12 rows of 200-bushel corn at 5 miles an hour, what incredible demands we're putting on these modern machines--and they're handling it.
But--while we've escalated the quaility and durability of the machinery, we've also escalated the complexity of the systems on those machines, and simultaneously increased but decreased the operator's role in the scheme of things. There are too many things for one person to keep track of, so we've added automatic header height control, GPS-guided auto-steer, and all sorts of machine monitoring systems. We're to the point where, once a machine is calibrated and "all systems are go," the operator has nothing to do but sit there and try to stay awake.
Which leads to problems in two directions:
-first, all that automation has immensely increased the amount of switches, sensors, potentiometers, wiring harnesses and computers on farm equipment. Many of those gadgets must be located in high risk locations--under corn snouts, on the ends of grain platforms, and always close to moving belts, pulleys and other mechanical components that love to eat, snarl, snag and destroy high-tech components. So, we've made farm equipment structurally stronger, but added miles of wiring and dozens of high-tech components prone to failure in locations on the machine that beg for damage. Lately, I've spent as much time fixing torn up wiring harnesses and repairing sensing and control systems as I have welding or bolting and unbolting broken parts.
-second, the inevitable war between man and machine. Even when all the automated systems are functioning properly, there is a tendency for man to want to dominate machine. Maybe the automatic header control system is a little too "slow," and needs to be forced up or down to get across a waterway. Maybe the auto steering system isn't cutting close enough to the fence. Perhaps the speed control isn't "pushing the machine enough", and the operator feels a need to step in and "keep the old girl full." When man consistently forces machine to do things the machine doesn't want to do, or isn't built to do, the machine has no choice but to break or fail. The converse problem is where the machine is so automated that the human becomes disengaged from its operation, and either dozes off, spaces out, or is distracted by a cell phone conversation or playing Angry Birds.
The bottom line is that we've made farm equipment more durable than it's ever been, but added lots of systems that are by nature failure-sensitive. We've also increased the opportunity for operator-induced breakdowns due to ignoring or over-riding automated systems. It's kind of "two steps forward and three steps back," as we make machinery more durable, but add systems and technology that by nature increase the potential for problems.