Machines That Never Break Down
Mar 16, 2011
There is a legend in my county of an Air Force colonel who retired from flying B-52s and took over the family farm. According to the legend, he spent one winter rebuilding the family combine to military specfications, replacing all the bearings with the highest quality bearings he could find, balancing the augers, balancing all the powershafts and pulleys, and synching all the sieves and oscillating components. Neighbors reported that the rebuilt combine didn't even sound like a normal combine when it ran, more of a "hum" than the normal whirring, banging, clanging, roaring we expect from combines.It ran flawlessly for hour after hour, day after day, year after year, but nobody could get the retired pilot to confess what the rehabilitation actually cost.
Which parallels a conversation I overhead 15 years ago between a farmer and an engineer during a factory tour. The farmer was harassing the engineer about combine breakdowns, and challenged the engineer to build a combine that wouldn't break down. The engineer didn't blink--he just told the farmer to write him a check for a $1 million and he'd deliver the combine in 2 or 3 years.
I often complain about the outrageous cost of new farm equipment, but when I step back and look at what the buyer gets for his money, it's not a bad deal. Compare a modern 200-hp tractor with the 806 International that was the apple of my father's eye in the early '70s. That tractor was 2WD, less than 100 hp, drank fuel, had pathetic brakes and power steering, and was guaranteed to leave your ears ringing for two days after you shut it off. (Never mind that Dad liked to run a straight stack...) The modern tractor is tens--maybe hundreds--of thousands of dollars more expensive, but has a seat more comfortable than my La-Z-Boy, has a better stereo than what I have in my house, pulls like a Percheron on amphetamines, and has autosteer/GPS/automatic gizmos that reduce fuel usage to a miser's dream. And while the 806 spent every winter in the shop getting a new TA (torque amplifier) installed or the transmission rebuilt, a lot of the modern tractors will run tens of thousands of hours without need to be "split."
Yes, engineers could build farm equipment even more reliable than current units, but...would farmers be willing to pay the price? And how would I make a living if they did...?