The productization of a new forest machine series is a multi-phase process that takes several years at the very least. A peek behind the scenes of the engineering work reveals a team that is inspired by problem-solving, passionate about their work and isn’t deterred by the fact that their handprint takes years to see.
The outlining of a new series of forest machines starts as soon as the previous one is launched. But it takes a long time before it reaches logging sites. At the heart of the engineering work are constantly evolving customer needs, which John Deere pulls together from numerous sources, most importantly from its own customers and machine operators with whom Engineering Manager Timo Laitinen and Engineering Team Leader Aki Pyykkö interact with personally or through the support of the customer interface teams.
As customer needs arise around the world, they are inevitably very different. However, certain trends are prevalent regardless of the market. “For the machine owner, output is still the most important when working with the machine. But these days, having a machine that runs isn’t good enough; now it’s understood that operator wellbeing contributes to higher machine output,” says Laitinen. The improvement in machine usability and workflow is a trend ending up on the drawing board of engineers from many angles. Northern Europe has long traditions of work wellbeing and ergonomics as such, but also the highly tuned production systems of South America require that the operator has the best possible conditions.
From engineering to testing and production
At John Deere, the engineering of a new series of forest machines is triggered by an annually approved portfolio plan. A new review is currently underway and is aiming for the turn of the decade.
“Until then, the game is pretty clear,” Laitinen notes. Some of the projects accepted for drafting are critical development projects that will bring completely new technology to the market. Therefore, also the productization cycle is longer.
“Designing new functionalities for a machine requires time both for the development and testing of the structure and the control system,” Pyykkö explains.
It takes cohesive teamwork to create a new series of forest machines. The 23-person engineering team for the forest machines, power systems and transmission is headed by Timo Laitinen, who keeps the ball rolling and ensures that targets are met. Team Leader Pyykkö leads the project for the harvesters and is responsible for the practical implementation together with the team. In addition to mechanical engineers, the project team includes frame, power systems and electrical engineers, as well as specialists in areas such as hydraulics and automation who are needed to implement each sub-project.
The project definition phase takes between one and two years. During this period, any new customer needs that have emerged are critically reviewed.
“We identify what implementations would be required to meet the different customer needs and we score the most important features. We try to identify solutions that are of real benefit to the customer,” Laitinen says.
Although the focus of the design is on customer needs, the whole picture must be taken into account. The aim of the design is to find an outstanding solution from the customer, production and profitability point of view. A narrow market can cut into profitability and so can a high quality risk. New technologies aren’t introduced to the market until they have been through a reliable level of testing and validation. In line with John Deere’s product testing process, a new product or machine model undergoes at least 2,000 hours of testing. “With us, the customer doesn’t have to be the one testing the finished machine,” Laitinen notes.
"Having a machine that runs isn’t good enough; now it’s understood that operator wellbeing contributes to higher machine output."
- Timo Laitinen -
Motivated by the journey and the destination
When you only see your handprint every few years, you need other sources of motivation. What’s the best thing about designing new forest machines?
“Yes, I have a definite zeal for this work. I like looking at things from different angles and studying plans or 3D models. It’s so interesting,” Pyykkö admits.
Laitinen recognizes a number of motivating factors, both in himself and in his subordinates. For many, the main motivator is a high-tech product, the completion of which is not the only goal. Problem solving and learning along the way are equally rewarding.
“The high point, of course, is completing the product and hearing customer feedback, but that may not come for years after the actual effort. By that time, you may not be as excited about it since you are already preoccupied with new projects. For me, the most rewarding phase is the project definition phase: agreeing on what will be made,” says Laitinen.
The months following the definition phase are not as exciting, but each concrete step is.
“Creating a graph doesn’t give me much satisfaction, but I am happy with every – even minor – success: when we get the machine built or tested, or when we hear the first customer feedback.”
Few engineers are working on just a single project; in fact, most have many – Pyykkö has four at the moment.
“We have a lot of problems to solve, and with that comes a constant stream of small successes.”
TEXT: Anne Kastarinen, IMAGES: JOHN DEERE