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Proving that ag technology is on top of the electronic world

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas teems with electronic gizmos and concept technologies of the future — you know, the things none of us had any idea about a year or two ago but soon won’t be able to live without.

At this year’s event in January, one unexpected display towered over all the others, in stark contrast to the electronic products around it. By many accounts it became the undisputed talk of the show.

What was it? Get your head around this: it was an S700 Series John Deere combine. As far as anyone can remember, it is the first agricultural machine to grace that show with its presence — ever.

Why did Deere decide to display its wares at the CES?

“It’s a question I’m getting a lot,” says Cyndee Smiley, media relations and communications manager for John Deere. “It comes down to three main reasons. Number one is that, in order for Deere to continue to bring the technology solutions into the ag market that will meet our customers’ needs, we need to stay connected in the technology industry and stay on top of the new tech trends.

Cyndee Smiley.
photo: Scott Garvey

“The second one is we saw it as such a great opportunity to advocate on behalf of our customers, on behalf of agriculture, because the technology adoption within our industry is so strong. And we understood that people needed to understand just how technologically advanced farmers are, but also the higher purpose they’re working towards, around feeding this growing world.

“The third reason is in order for Deere to continue to recruit and partner the way we need to… we really needed to strengthen our perception in that technology industry.”

What better place to find electronics engineers and the people who could bring digital expertise to the green brand’s engineering offices, and to impress them with all the modern technology packing into the big Deere machines, than CES?

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If you think about it for a minute, the S700 easily deserved to be parked amid a host of high-tech electronic devices. A couple of years ago, the S Series machines were enhanced with the Combine Advisor system that includes seven “suites” of technology that can do a lot of thinking for an operator and keep the combine running at optimal settings throughout a harvesting day, even as conditions change from hour to hour or field to field.

The Combine Advisor system requires the practical application of artificial intelligence (AI), and this was a central feature of Deere’s display. Staff made the point to visitors that unlike the majority of other items on view at the show, farmers using the green brand’s equipment were now years into actually putting AI into commercial use on their operations. No pie-in-the-sky ideas here.

“It really differentiated John Deere and our commercialization of technology versus some of the other people at the Consumer Electronics Show,” says Smiley, noting the display clearly made an impact on showgoers. “Seeing that first impression of people coming around the corner and seeing that 20-ton machine. And then that second step of really understanding AI technology, self-driving technology and just how long we’ve been using them.

“Our booth was extremely, extremely busy. And there were really two very common responses from the technology industry as a whole. The first one is just completely impressed with adoption of technology on the farm and the future opportunities technology has on the farm.

“And the second one is people coming by were really inspired by Deere’s use of technology for that higher purpose of helping farmers feed the growing world. When you can showcase that we already have AI commercially in the market with strong adoption, and that it’s used in machines that inevitably grow the food people eat, that was something the technology industry really, really connected positively with.”

Deere’s participation at the show wasn’t limited to stopping visitors in their tracks at the sight of an S700. A senior executive from the brand sat on a discussion panel on AI, 5G, the Internet of Things, and how their applications are growing.

“I think one of the really impactful moments to really showcase Deere’s value when it comes to being a technology leader with a higher purpose, was when one of our directors was invited to sit on an artificial intelligence panel at the CES show,” says Smiley. “He was up there sharing what’s already in the market, what opportunities we see to better support farmers with AI. We do this in a manner that isn’t just in the office, we’re out there in the field with our customers. That resonated very strongly with the people in the audience. And equally with the people who were following on social media as well.”

To add yet more impact to their display, Deere staff let showgoers ride around in an 8R tractor steered by auto guidance through a winding course in the parking lot. Hearing most farmers have been doing exactly that with their equipment for years blew the minds of a few city slickers who took the ride.

“We were out in the Platinum lot with all the other self-driving demos, and people couldn’t believe that when they got into our 8R tractor and rode along with it completely self-driving using GPS and different tactile sensors from our RowSense technology, seeing the computer vision in action where it can differentiate between soil and a plant and then automate the machine, they could not believe all of that technology was already in the market today,” Smiley says.

For most of those at the show, seeing anything ag related was unexpected, and initially, few really understood what they were looking at. Deere’s marketing reps manning the display often had to explain just exactly what a combine was used for.

“There were a number of really honest people who came through and admitted they didn’t know where their food came from,” says Smiley. “We had a display that talked about everyday products like wheat and corn and what those products turn into and how John Deere equipment and technology is used by farmers to grow those commodities. People left the John Deere booth with a better understanding of agriculture and a better understanding of how it affects their everyday life.”

Overall, Smiley says there were three main messages the brand wanted visitors to take away from the display.

“We were so committed to them, we put them up on the wall at the booth,” she says. “We had three main sayings. Number one: Feed a Growing World. We wanted people to understand our farmers everyday are working at feeding and fuelling and providing fibre into the world and how that happens.

“In the second one we wrote AI on the Farm. And that was really talking about artificial intelligence, how we’re already using it and how we plan to keep using it in the future.

“The third one was Innovation Never Stops. When we look at all of the opportunities for technology in agriculture, it is an exciting space to be in.”

For the staff, being at the CES was an experience unlike attending a typical farm machinery show, Smiley adds. They left with an entirely different feeling. And long after the show, the observations and conclusions drawn by those who were there were still being talked about through all the ranks of the organization.

How that affects decisions in the future and whether or not Deere will go back to the CES next year remain to be seen, Smiley says.

“Specifically what shows we’ll go to over the next couple of years or what specific media and speaking opportunities we’ll capitalize on, that’s something we’re continuing to work through.

“Kind of a fun story, every morning and every night we did what we called a ‘tire side chat,’ kind of a play on ‘fireside chat.’ We’d talk about what conversations we had, how did you respond, how can we better convey the message.

“One of our catchphrases was ‘AI, AI, Oh.’ A play on ‘EI, EI, OH.’ But it was really the next evolution of agriculture we were there to talk about.”

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