Food for Thought
Thomas Böck sums up an extraordinary fiscal year and takes a look ahead.
Ever since the first steam-powered machine hauled a plough across a field using a cable winch, agricultural equipment has always been about efficiency. Modern agricultural machines are now reaching their economic and environmental limits when it comes to size and power, which is why the industry needs to break new ground to combat climate change and reduce emissions.
Agricultural equipment and construction machinery manufacturers began working on strategies to reduce harmful emissions at a European level back in 2011, two years before the first climate protection laws were introduced. The German agricultural equipment industry initiated a research project in 2016, in partnership with universities, scientific institutions, and the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA). Its name? EKoTech. The aim of the project was to cut carbon emissions in agricultural equipment; a proactive effort in the fight against climate change and not simply a response to legal requirements. Nevertheless, the benchmark is derived from environmental policy, which requires a 40 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030.
Achieving this goal requires a whole series of measures covering the entire agricultural production chain and combining potential for improvement. Tractors with low fuel consumption are brilliant, but what about the plough? It doesn’t need a single drop of diesel to run, but its design and frequency of use are often a major factor in the tractor’s fuel consumption. EKoTech has shifted this perspective and pinpointed four elements that are proven to enhance the overall performance and carbon footprint of agricultural equipment.
The first steps are to look at the engine, improve the machine as a whole, and analyze the entire process from the perspective of operating efficiency. These three elements have already been investigated, with findings being implemented in the latest generation of products. The fourth element focuses on alternative energy sources and drive concepts, from biodiesel to fuel cells and electric motors. This is what’s on the agenda for manufacturers over the next few years.
The EKoTech project looked into the cultivation of wheat, corn, and grass over a period of 40 years from 1990 to 2030. The chosen metric was carbon emissions emissions per quantity of grain or other crops produced. All of the measures reduce fuel costs, making them attractive from a financial perspective for farmers and contractors.
In an interview with two members of the EKoTech project team, Dr. Bernd Scherer and Dr. Eberhard Nacke, it soon becomes clear how ambitious the initiative was and how the technical and political aims are linked together.
Dr. Bernd Scherer has been Managing Director of Agricultural Machinery at the VDMA since 1992. He has an intimate knowledge of the industry and helped launch the EKoTech project in 2016. Dr. Eberhard Nacke is responsible for innovation at CLAAS and managed the EKoTech project. He is also responsible for implementing the EKoTech findings at CLAAS, a global player in the agricultural equipment market. Nacke helped develop the scientific basis for the project long before it was launched and raised funding for the initiative.
“By 2030 we will be in a position to reduce the amount of diesel needed to produce one metric ton of wheat by over 30 percent compared to 1990,” says Dr. Bernd Scherer, summarizing the findings. “If we maximize potential here, we could even be looking at cutting diesel consumption by 40 percent. The findings from the project are robust and extremely important for our industry, thanks to the funding from the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture and support from scientific and academic domains.”
“We link together real-life farm data from the past 30 years with models to cultivate wheat, corn, and grass,” adds Dr. Eberhard Nacke. “A key success factor in this area is not to concentrate solely on the potential of individual components, rather to view the production system and associated agricultural process chains, many of which can be digitally mapped and tracked, as a whole. It is also just as relevant to ease the burden on the person operating the machinery and prevent inefficient settings that cause unnecessary emissions, both of which are now commonplace thanks to assistance systems. Last but not least, we have also looked into alternative drives and fuels that will be a firm fixture of the efficiency mix of tomorrow.”
“The idea behind EKoTech is to pursue an integrated and targeted approach, but above all transfer existing performance onto the road and into the fields in the form of available technical solutions,” adds Dr. Bernd Scherer, explaining how the findings are being implemented. “There’s also no question that political incentives are needed to simplify agricultural investment and enhance opportunities for amortization. This is an integral part of our regular dialogue with policymakers in Berlin and Brussels.”
“Nowadays, machinery, engine management, operating procedures, and certainly process capacities are unthinkable without software and connected computing.”
Dr. Bernd Scherer
Dr. Bernd Scherer underlines how vital Agriculture 4.0 – and particularly the topics of digitalization and connectivity – is in achieving the EKoTech objectives: “We benefit from computer-assisted intelligence across the board now. Machinery, engine management, operating procedures, and certainly process capacities are unthinkable without software and connected computing. In this context, digital solutions are generating the gains in efficiency that are really paying dividends, both economically and environmentally, for agri-business. We are already at a stage where one liter of diesel can power all of the agricultural equipment needed to produce flour for 16,000 rolls.”
The members of the EKoTech project team also prize cloud-based solutions and cross-manufacturer and single-manufacturer data management. The VDMA sees specific benefits in both approaches from a user perspective: those involving multiple manufacturers and solutions manufacturers develop on a proprietary basis.
“First and foremost, from a technical standpoint, we require standardized interfaces that function universally across multiple systems,” says Dr. Bernd Scherer. Here, the VDMA is working on corresponding compatibility standards at ISO level to ensure that cross-system data exchange becomes a reality. The ultimate goal is to establish standardized cloud-to-cloud solutions that can connect farmers’ farm management systems with multiple manufacturers’ cloud products.
Dr. Eberhard Nacke shares the VDMA’s view that reducing emissions and protecting the environment are a marathon, not a sprint. Both experts refer to the ambitious EU plans as part of its Green Deal that are set to impact agri-business and require farmers to significantly reduce the use of certain materials by the end of the decade. Demand for plant protection products alone is to be halved EU-wide by 2030. For mineral and organic fertilizers, the aim is to reduce the amount of nitrate entering groundwater by 20 percent.
Technical solutions that meet these criteria go above and beyond the scope of fuel efficiency, but still require the precision and control of smart, connected processes. EKoTech was and remains an important milestone on this journey.
“A key factor of success here is not to concentrate solely on the potential of individual components, rather to view the production system and associated agricultural process chains, many of which can be digitally mapped and tracked, as a whole.”
Dr. Eberhard Nacke
The DataConnect interface is opening up more possibilities to use data and is a unique partnership in the industry.