For a group of young boys standing around the Fendt display at the Agritechnica machinery expo in Hanover, Germany, earlier this winter, the prototype model Former 12555X electric hay rake on show was a little like a video game. By sliding a finger across a screen, they could use the touch pad computer on the edge of the exhibit to individually change the rotation speed of each of the rake’s rotating wheels, which is exactly the kind of easy variability and efficient machine operation that has many people believing electric implement control is the way of the future.
“You have an indirect efficiency gain leveraged from the controllability,” agrees Morton Bilde, research engineering manager for harvesting equipment at Fendt.
There’s no doubt electricity is playing a much bigger role in agricultural implement design these days. Several air drill and planter brands, for instance, have already switched to electric meter drives. But so far, we still aren’t seeing a wholesale move from hydraulic to electric overall implement control, which was the dream of previous Agritechnicas.
“The enthusiasm about electrification has plateaued,” acknowledges Bilde. “We’re now more realistic about it.” That includes recognizing that there are many farm jobs where hydraulics will make the most sense for many years to come.
“Hydraulic will remain dominant for quite a while,” Bilde says. “Two years ago there was a lot of hype about electrification. Everyone wanted to electrify everything. I think what we have learned over the past two or three years is we need to be really selecting which (electrical) applications make sense and which applications do not.”
At the 2013 Agritechnica, it was Fendt that introduced the most significant contribution to electric implement control with the debut of its X Concept tractor based on the evolving industry standard of 700 volts DC, designed specifically to handle high implement electrical power requirements.
“You can argue the rake is an attempt at justifying the tractor, right?” says Bilde rhetorically. “Because, who wants the tractor if you don’t have an electrical implement?”
Even if the move toward electrification in ag equipment has seriously slowed, no one thinks it has stopped entirely. At a press conference during Agritechnica 2015, AGCO executives talked about the electric rake soon becoming a market-ready product. But no one offered a definite timeline, and the X Concept tractor is still a few years away from commercial production.
“At some point I think it (electric drives) will be normal,” Bilde says. “The more electrical implements that we get out there, I think it will be as natural plugging in for electrical power as plugging in hydraulic hoses.”
In the meantime, however, there are still challenges ahead for the widespread development of electric implement control, and those challenges may include a re-examination of overall implement designs.
“There are probably a couple of obstacles,” says Bilde. “Cost of components is one of them. Electrical components are still expensive. It’s not easy to leverage on the high volume of electrical motors (built) in the industry, because our applications are so unique. We have completely different specs. So it’s the cost of components and just the availability of them.”
“For example, the volume in the automotive industry compared to agriculture is so different that it’s hard to justify a unique motor for each different application. That’s why we need to leverage the economies of scale going forward. We need to start building more (common) platforms — product families in a sense.”
The 12555X rake isn’t based on the kind of new product platform Bilde is talking about. Instead it is a conventional model converted to electric drive.
“Now that we’re starting to have rakes and hay tools within our own portfolio, it made a lot of sense to electrify one of our own implements to get started,” he explains.
“The tractor supplies 700-volts DC power. On the implement we then convert that in a controlled manner down to 400 volts AC. We’re working on a 700-volt DC standard across the industry. And from that, you can convert it to whatever makes the most sense for an application. AC has the advantage of being easy to control. So controlling speed and power, that’s why it makes a lot of sense.”
Bilde thinks that once the electrification concept gains momentum and engineers start building “clean sheet” designs, there will be more significant efficiency gains that could begin to get farmers’ attention.