Inside a nondescript building in North Liberty, Iowa, some farm equipment history is being made by a company that has a knack for innovation.
Kinze Electronics could be called the “high-tech” arm of Kinze Manufacturing, the well-known maker of planters and grain carts. The new group is launching its first commercial product for the 2019 planting season — the Blue Vantage system — a product that has been in development for four years.
QUIET INNOVATION: This “storefront” location for Kinze is actually a center for tech innovation for the farm equipment maker. Kinze Electronics is carving a new path for the company. (Courtesy of Kinze)
“In our December 2014 open house, we announced to the public that we will staff an electronics team in North Liberty,” recalls Todd Kniffen, Kinze vice president of engineering.
He notes that the North Liberty location is important. The area, along I-380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, has become a tech corridor for the Hawkeye State. The move gave the company access to talent in the region that might be harder to access if it meant a move to the home office in Williamsburg, Iowa — even though it’s just 30 minutes down I-80.
With changes in ag technology these days, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Kinze made the jump to start its own electronics division. The company’s owners have a long history of taking on manufacturing to control Kinze’s destiny. A factory tour shows that Kinze still designs and builds its own hydraulic cylinders, a specialty few iron-bending manufacturers take on.
For electronics, Kniffen says the reason for the electronics startup fits that same pattern. “We wanted to develop technology specific and unique to Kinze products,” he says. “Many controls today are designed for use on many products; they’re more generic and not specific to the application.”
That also meant that getting customer-requested features could be a challenge. Working with an outside electronics supplier meant being beholden to that company’s development schedule. If a customer focus group showed that a specific feature might be just right for a Kinze machine, the vendor might not be able to develop it in the right timeline. Another reason for investing in design and control.
The timing of the electronics investment may not be perceived as fortuitous. Since 2014, agriculture has been in one of its longest-running slumps. Kniffen notes that the move took some courage as the market downturn continued. Kinze even suffered a layoff in the past five years, but the investment in electronics continued. He explains that while that was a difficult time, the Kinzenbaw family and leadership stuck with the investment.
DIVERSE TEAM: Engineers and designers at Kinze Electronics come from a range of backgrounds — many not from the farm. That provides added insight for new product development. (Courtesy of Kinze)
Building an electronics team
That new division meant hiring engineers, and electronics designers. “We hired a great team,” Kniffen says. “Some had an ag background, and many did not. A few of them were farmers, but our aim was to hire talented engineers with varying degrees of experience, from entry level new-grads to experienced engineers with up to 30 years of experience.”
That diverse hiring approach was important, and some of the new hires had to be taught about agriculture. “There’s power in that statement,” Kniffen says. “We wanted to bring together a powerful, cross-functional team — with expertise in different areas — to focus on ag. I call it the best of the best.” Kniffen says it took nearly two years to fully staff the new operation.
Putting those electronics engineers to work meant connecting to customers. Kinze, like most farm equipment makers, has close ties to dealers and customers.
The Kinze team does market research, too, asking focus groups and farmers about their challenges, and learning what the customer wants. With its new electronics division, Kniffen and his team could tackle those problems in new ways.
And the goal was to design for the future, not start out of the box with modifications to current equipment. The result is the Blue Vantage planter and its Blue Vantage system, which currently has no field retrofit kit. For the first year, the only way to get the new tech is to buy the Blue Vantage planter.
Taking a tech leap
Brad Niensteadt was anxious to get into the field. Yet, he sat down with Farm Progress, along with Kniffen, to talk about Blue Vantage and moving a product from the lab to the field. Niensteadt is a product specialist in electronics for Kinze, involved in working with farmers directly with new tools.
The move by Kinze to break out on its own with an electronics system and electric meters may be seen by some as a risk. But Niensteadt and Kniffen see an opportunity, noting that a majority of farmers are still moving into new technologies. Niensteadt says that at this point on the tech adoption curve, there’s flexibility to carve out a new approach to planter control; and having that tech in-house offers opportunity. Kinze says it will work to connect these new tools with other systems in the future.
But what about the added monitor in the cab? Niensteadt makes an observation about planters. “Planters are probably the most personalized machines on the farm. No two planters are the same; and as we expand outside of the Midwest, we’re seeing scenarios we didn’t think about,” he says. He notes that while at first farmers might have wanted all their information on a single monitor, for planting, many potential customers like the idea of planter information on its own screen.
With Blue Vantage, there’s built-in capability to get the planter to match the local need. Built with input from focus groups as well as market research, the company has a system that in many cases offers a “three-clicks-and-plant” simplicity that many farmers may find valuable. This is the first season with the new planters into the field, and the initial order cycle for the machines — even in a soft market — beat company expectations.
The Blue Vantage system is Kinze-designed and U.S.-built. The unit uses the familiar Category 5 Network cable. The onboard diagnostics, and even the teaching system, allow a farmer to spend time with the tablet in the offseason to familiarize themselves with operation. Niensteadt explains that every spring, a farmer almost must relearn how to use the planter. With this system, however, the farmer can take the tablet into the house, go into “demo mode” and essentially get a refresher — so he or she is ready to go when fields are ready.
The system also has a “health screen” to check out the planter, and keep the system up and running in season.
FIRST PRODUCT: The Blue Vantage system, which includes this new tablet-based monitor and control mated to a new planter, can offer users “three-clicks-and-plant” convenience to machine management. (Courtesy of Kinze)
Development in action
How does having in-house control of tech impact the company? Niensteadt explains that from a support standpoint, he got an education with an early system. “I had a dealer who was able to identify a loose cable problem and fix it himself, without the need to call in,” he says. “Of course, he did call in to tell us how simple it was to fix.”
For Kniffen, having control of the company’s electronics destiny manifested itself ahead of testing a year ago. “We were in the predevelopment stage and were about to send out customer test units for some live planting, and it’s two days before the handover,” he recalls. “We were going through our final validation checks, and there was a feature that wasn’t performing properly. Brad, myself and 12 engineers were in the field until nearly 11 p.m., and we figured out the problem; we had the software updates within 12 hours, and we were in the field with the machines. We never missed a beat.”
A software issue on a vendor-supplied unit would not have been that easy to fix. “If we had to go back to a supplier for that kind of problem, we would have missed the test season.”
Controlling a company’s destiny in a competitive market sometimes means making hard investment choices. For Kinze, the electronics decision carves a new niche for the company. And based on what Kniffen and Niensteadt told Farm Progress, Kinze is just getting started.