On August 20, 1940, the New Holland Machine Company signed a deal with Pennsylvania inventor Ed Nault to take ownership of his unique hay baler design. Nault had patented a new knotter that was capable of reliably producing a tight bale, something other fledgling designs at the time really couldn’t do very well, according to Don Horning, a New Holland, Pennsylvania historian who provided journalists with some history behind the NH brand during a media event put on by the company in July.
Nault and a partner were only manufacturing the balers on a very small scale prior to the sale, Horning explained.
Just five weeks later, however, owners of what would become today’s New Holland, which was and still is headquartered in New Holland, had fine tuned the baler’s design and were beginning production, with advertisements for the improved machine running in the local newspaper. The success of that baler made NH the go-to brand for haying equipment in North America for years, building a reputation that still has a strong pull with many farmers.
It also created a lasting pride in the quality of its balers that senior NH executives still feel today.
“Our history is something we can be proud of and something we can build on, but we really can’t be comfortable with what our predecessors did,” said Bret Lieberman, NH’s new North American vice-president during the July media event. “Our job will always be to leave the place in better shape than when we found it.
“When I was manager at the (assembly) plant, I would show them (visitors) the knotter and say if it weren’t for this we probably wouldn’t be here today. Something so simple as a knotter on a square baler is where this company has grown from. That really put this brand on the map, and it really gave it the leverage to grow and expand.”
Legend has it that Nault locked himself inside a farmyard corn crib while perfecting his prototype baler so as to avoid any cynical criticism from his neighbours who might catch on to what he was up to. Today, advancing the design of NH machines is still done behind locked doors to provide a measure of corporate secrecy, but the company’s R&D facility adjacent to the executive offices and hay tool-manufacturing plant is a far cry from Nault’s improvised farm workshop.
The NH R&D building covers thousands of square feet and includes sophisticated test bays that can perform everything from continuous vibration tests to cold-weather simulations that chill machines down to Saskatchewan-like winter conditions for sub-zero durability testing. It’s the kind of must-have facility every major brand uses in order to turn out reliable engineering designs.
During that July event, NH executives unlocked the door to their facility and allowed farm journalists, who were at the head office to see the launch of the brand’s 2016 equipment line, to wander through and see what engineers and technicians were up to. Although there were some of the usual restrictions on what we could photograph, the company was quite accommodating.
Managers recruit the roughly 100 workers in the R&D facility from its assembly plant staff, but employees who want one of these coveted jobs need to prove they have exceptional drive so they can be counted on to make a meaningful contribution. Each one needs to have a top-notch work record and to complete a series of courses on their own time before even being considered.
“We can teach the skills, but we can’t teach the attitude,” explained Ben Heiser, manager of the R&D lab.
The jobs vary from welding prototype components to running the $500,000 3D printer that the lab uses to make to ensure concept parts have proper fit before going through the expense of sending a design out to a foundry to pour metal versions.
“In some cases we go through virtually hundreds of iterations of a part before we actually build it,” said Mark Layton, a chief engineer. “It (the printer) is a very valuable tool engineers use for prototyping vehicles. That technology didn’t exist 10 years ago the way it does today.”
In another test bay, a specialized machine vibrates and puts torsional stresses on combine concaves. Previously, labs would have to run a machine around a bump track, which meant scheduling drivers to keep the test going around the clock in order to put enough hours on in a short time. That non-stop pace was necessary to get a quick evaluation of how the machine would fare over several years of normal working life. And it was hard on drivers, who endured those stresses too.
The 3D modelling and specialized prototype testing bays also do a better job both of determining where any potential faults lie and of determining why they occur, allowing engineers to make changes faster.
“We’re trying to eliminate the build-and-break cycles,” said Layton. “We come to market with a product that is much more mature.”
Just off the shop floor is the facility’s VR (virtual reality) room. There, engineers can take a 3D look at how components fit together or how they will react when working in the field.
“Virtual reality came out of the need to take the complicated CAD (computer-aided design) models and simplify them,” said David Christopher, simulation manager.
To get the most out of VR modelling, even the way crops react when fed through combines and hay tools has been studied and can be included in a moving VR image. That lets engineers see where inefficiencies, excessive wear or other problems are likely to develop, so precise refinements can be made.
“We don’t want to do the old boiler plate process of just slapping more material on if you have a problem,” said Christopher.
The lab also includes specialists who subject electronics to some pretty severe duty. Mark Hooper, senior director of marketing, pointed out that increased focus on electronics means the new model introductions for 2016 look different than they have in past years.
“I think you’ll see the difference,” Hooper said. “Last year what we presented was a lot of new products. This year it’s some new product, because we continue to invest. But it’s about delivering, now, the technology that allows that product to optimize, so we can help the users do more with the products we’ve just introduced.”
“I’ve been with the company 25 years and I’ve never seen a refreshed line like we have today,” added Lieberman.
That focus on technology is likely to continue on Lieberman’s watch if his comments during an evening reception are any indication.
“To go fast, you need to keep your eyes up,” he told the journalists gathered there. “So if we as an organization are always looking at our feet about what we have to do today, what happened yesterday, the question is where are your eyes, because we have to have our eyes focused on moving forward. You can’t go fast if you’re looking at your feet.”