Performance tuning can boost power and productivity, but industry experts warn of quick fixes.
Coaxing improved output from diesel-powered farm equipment has become a popular, big-money venture for the players who do the work. According to one so-called tuner with a worldwide presence and 20 years of experience, performance enhancement has been made on well over half the machines in North America.
Alarmed by a host of suppliers that have popularized tuning for diesel pickup trucks and off-road vehicles, majors in the tuning industry caution growers to understand what they are getting before they buy services from tuners selling no more than a quick computer tweak.
"We're seeing a migration of start-up tuners from the performance auto and pickup truck business into the agricultural market," says Roger Carr, director of Boosted Performance Tuning Solutions (BPTS), the recently established Indiana-based North American arm of Australia's largest farm-equipment tuner. Carr, whose company also does business on farms in Brazil, Canada and South America, says diesel operators risk damage to their machinery from poorly trained technicians selling what he calls "rip-off generic electronic programs" with questionable ability to stand behind their product.
CAUTION BEFORE TUNING
Kevin Carey, national sales manager for Steinbauer Performance, says the tuning industry is "alive and kicking" worldwide, but "digital cowboys" are giving the industry a bad name. "While there is strong interest in tuning, I can't say it's all good," he explains. "Unfortunately, a large proportion of the services being offered is rubbish, sold by people who care little for their customers. They are just interested in making money."
Steinbauer Performance is based in Austria and has offices in Michigan to service farmers in the U.S. and Canada. The company produces "Power Modules" sold in more than 30 countries and has been in business for more than 20 years.
"We have seen an increase in the North American market with cheap 'custom ECU (engine control unit) flash tunes' over the past couple of years," Carey says. "This also happened in Europe but is largely gone there now, because the services being sold are just not sustainable. Much of what is being sold in the U.S. is pirated or generic software -- not specifically designed for the engines they are being installed upon."
Carey and Carr agree many times such "tunes" carelessly override engine settings that are designed to protect the engine from damage, and the result can be devastating and expensive. "Most don't even have a registered company in the U.S. and purchase their software 'flash' programs from third parties, and simply sell it as many times as they can with no regard to specific applications or OEM designs," Carey says.
When an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) produces an engine for use in an area the size of the U.S. and Canada, it is designed to operate dependably on a known minimum fuel-quality standard at a variety of elevations, temperatures and load expectations.
UNDERSTAND THE VARIABLES
"It's a compromise at best," Carr explains. "Manufacturers use a program suitable across all these variables. We, however, can get more specific by visiting with growers to determine their specific needs on their particular bit of ambient operating conditions, workload and fuel quality."
A combine operating at 200 feet above sea level can be tuned differently than one being used at 4,000 feet. There's a huge difference in the way machines perform, and the manufacturer has to have a good running compromise. OEMs routinely sell basic engine designs of the same displacement but rated at different power outputs. This means there is significant flexibility in how engine management is modified.
"For instance, there's a particular line of equipment that uses a 9.0-liter engine in eight to nine models, rated from 360 to 490 horsepower," Carr explains. "It's obvious the engine is capable of producing various levels of power without impacting the expected life of the engine, and those different power ratings are controlled by the 'tune' on the engine and the signals it receives from the ECM [engine control module] supplied at the factory."
SAFE ALTERNATE PATHS
Carr's company approaches tuning by altering the program in the ECM, but unlike the start-up firms he criticizes, the tuning is done within OEM engine-safety limits and seeks to match customer-performance demands by tweaking engine intake air boost, fuel-injection pulse timing and transmission shift points.
"Torque management is also a significant variable in getting better performance from equipment," he explains.
Steinbauer Performance has based its business on its proprietary electronic module that is inserted downstream of the engine ECM to translate fuel injection pulse width signals to meet customer demands.
Both systems achieve improved performance but in different ways.
Carr says while BPTS "flashes the ECM," it does so with programs based on OEM specifications that do not exceed operating safety limits of OEM engine designs. He says the information to keep current on various engine designs and ECM operating specifications comes from considerable research and development from very experienced programmers.
"A truly customized tune will take a technician on-site for well over an hour," Carr explains. "Many times, it may take a second visit the next day for a complete install."
Carey says the Steinbauer Performance approach has proven to provide customers with improved performance and productivity, offers an easy-to-install module that can be transferred between pieces of equipment with the same power plant designs and holds resale value. "Our program isn't deleted when you take your equipment in for service by a factory dealership, and their technicians reflash the ECM to factory settings," he says.
Carr's company will reinstall the BPTS customized changes free of charge in case a dealership reflashes an engine tuned by his company.
AVOID PRESSURE ALTERATION
Neither program alters fuel pressure in common-rail fuel-injection systems, a technique popular with the less-expensive flash tuners and rail-pressure tuning boxes. Higher pressures affect the preignition, ignition and final fuel charge equally, with only the final fuel charge timed to take advantage of the increased fuel supply.
"With fuel rail-pressure increases, you can't stop the increase in fuel in the first two pulses; and because they come before the piston reaches top dead center, all you accomplish is increased wear and heat," Carr explains. "The damage results of sustained use of this method under load are both sensational and spectacular. We stay away from rail-pressure tuning."
Carey says Steinbauer seeks to improve power output through altering only the main fuel pulse, which allows full use of the ECU's safety features and maintains certified emission levels within regulatory limits. Tunes from BPTS and Steinbauer Performance cost roughly $2,500, depending upon the equipment involved.
VALUE OF CUSTOM TUNING
Carr and Carey both emphasize the importance of working individually with their customers to determine what changes need to be made to a given piece of equipment and why. "Our first questions are, 'What are you doing with the equipment, and are you having any problems?'," Carr says. "Most folks will say their tractor is working very hard but sometimes struggles with the workload, and that they want their bottom line to be improved. They want to increase their margin."
Carr uses a combine as an example and says his technicians will work for a "15 and 15" solution. "We'll shoot for a 15% reduction in fuel consumption and a 15% increase in productivity [field speed]. The impact is twofold. You save 15% on fuel and are doing 15% more work than before. You're [operating] cost per acre goes down 28 to 30%."
Another example might include a cotton harvester who doesn't want to exceed a 6-mph ground speed because of poor harvesting efficiency at faster rates. "Then, we'll concentrate mainly on fuel savings, and usually we can achieve up to 20% there," Carr explains. "Ultimately, we want to know the machine is working hard under current conditions. If it's not, savings are more difficult to find."
Finally, Carr gives the example of a contract operator who doesn't care about fuel consumption because he's paid on a per-acre or per-ton basis. "There we will target productivity, and we can get way north of 30%. Productivity is much easier to achieve than fuel savings," he explains.
PROOF ON THE GROUND
Carey, who notes increased power involves burning more fuel, gives the following example of a farmer with a large operation in Tennessee and Kentucky who kept data for two years for his John Deere S680 combines. He reported a gain of 1-mph ground speed in tough conditions harvesting winter wheat.
"With a 40-foot header, that means he harvested 32 more acres in eight hours with a fuel consumption gain of 0.5 gallons per acre. Based on $2.80 per gallon diesel, he reported his combine payment per acre with the Steinbauer module was $5.88. Without the module, the payment would have been $8.25," he explains. The figures were based on $100-per-hour lease and provided a savings of $7,540 on 2,000 acres.
"This does not take into account the benefits of getting soybeans planted earlier after wheat," he notes. For example, a Virginia Tech study finds a 0.5-bushel-per-acre yield loss for soybeans planted after mid-June.
Carey and Carr offer the following basic questions to ask when selecting a reputable tuning vendor:
> Does the vendor have a U.S. registered office or company?
> What does the written warranty cover, and is there a company to stand behind that warranty?
> Do they come to your farm to install the product without you having to remove and ship your ECU?
> Does the development staff have the background and working knowledge of how the machine operates?
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