Technology has shifted many former engineering functions to software or electronics over the past couple of decades, and that trend shows few signs of slowing. Let’s take mobile hydraulics as an example. In my career, I’ve met a lot hydraulics people — from system designers to founders of component manufacturers — who started off as teenagers either on the farm, working on equipment, or in the driveway, working on their car. These kinds of mechanical lessons often proved invaluable in their later movement into engineering design.
But today’s modern agricultural equipment users have been grumbling about some aspects of progress the last few years. Outlets as varied as WIRED magazine, Forbes and The Guardian have all covered the “right to repair” issue (which also extends to consumer electronics and other items). Some farmers are fighting back against the trend for OEMs to require all repairs to be done only by authorized repair shops or technicians.
Greg Downs, Senior Principal Engineer, Zoomlion Heavy Industry NA Inc., spoke with me about this issue at this Spring’s Fluid Power Technology Conference in Milwaukee, and he noted that when he was growing up, he used to work on cars a lot himself.
“We’d build an engine and we didn’t have to have a PhD to do it — but you can’t do that anymore. The reason is because they have cars that are more reliable and a better quality. You give up simplicity for the complexity, because they are better performing, more efficient,” he said.
“Several years ago, I was talking to a farmer about his combine harvester,” Downs said. “He explained how he could work on it during his harvest, when the machines had a lot of belts and chains and mechanical drives. But I told him that he’d been asking for much higher productivity, more speed, bigger grain tanks, longer seasons. All of these things mean more efficiency. So, you give up some of that ease of maintenance for systems that are much more complex but also simplified; your software diagnoses issues. In order to get the higher production, the higher efficiencies — that’s what you give up. The days of being a shadetree mechanic, going out and changing out things is becoming less and less.”
Some engineers who learned mechanics the old-fashioned way might not be able to handle all the new changes. The truth is that today, we need experts to fix things — that means engineers comfortable with electronics and sensors and software in addition to the mechanics. And really, this is just one more lesson that adapting to change might be the best lesson we can learn early on in our careers.