Ever watch TV's Big Bang Theory? It's a comedy about the hijinks of a nerdy, genius group of guys who giggle gleefully at the mere thought of getting their hands on the latest technologies. They have access to brainiac tools because they work at CalTech, the Pasadena institute that describes itself as, "a world-renowned and pioneering research and education institution dedicated to advancing science and engineering." For the Big Bang boys, it's an ersatz playground where particle colliders and 3-D printers take the place of swing sets and sandboxes.
I recently visited a Pennsylvania version of CalTech. It's housed at the North American New Holland Corporate Headquarters Tech Center in New Holland, Pa. While it doesn't have a particle collider, it does have 3-D printers. It also has machines the sole purpose of which is to shake other machines. It has a cold room to lower metal temperatures to minus 10 degrees and a virtual reality theater that allow engineers to spin and twist computer generated images to "see" into every corner of a machine that has not yet been built.
The Tech Center is inhabited by 300 employees, none of whom might refer to themselves as nerdy geniuses, but many of whom happily call themselves "Dangerously Smart Farm Boys."
At least that's how Innovative Technology Director John Posselius jokingly refers to his colleagues. He says a lot of them came from farm backgrounds, which may be as helpful in their research at New Holland as the doctorates and graduate degrees many of the boys (and girls) hold.
New Holland has long prided itself on pushing technological boundaries. For example, it has toyed with autonomous vehicles since 1998 when some of its Dangerously Smart Farm Boys built an autonomous harvest machine they tested on 100 acres of alfalfa. In the same vein, New Holland -- in both Europe and Pennsylvania -- now has a research project it is calling RHEA (Robotic Highly Efficient Agriculture). New Holland's hydrogen-powered tractor also made a splash a few years ago, and the company's energy-self-sufficient test farm in Italy has been bubbling for years.
The Tech Center in Pennsylvania focuses on testing machines and components developing new processes. For instance, it has facilities for testing the durability of paints using heat, light and cold. Technicians test electronic controllers -- the brains of modern farm machines -- with shaking devices, vibrators and special rooms to simulate the worst weather imaginable. Digital gear is great, but before releasing it to the marketplace testers want to answer the question: Will it "live" in the real world?
"We really try to break it," one technician told me. "We try to do things that are not in the manual." That's important because software, controllers and hardware not only have to work in a lab, they have to work in the harsh environments agriculture throws at them.
The Rapid Prototyping Lab in New Holland contains a 3-D printing machine to create parts from powder and nylon. Program a virtual design into its digital brain, feed it sheets of plastic and push the "go" button. It methodically and patiently "prints" layer after thin layer, gluing them together to form a three dimensional object that never existed before. When it is finished, engineers have a prototype part or tool they can test. The 3-D printer speeds the design-it/build-it/test-it/repeat process that has slowed engineering and design for centuries. So does the virtual reality theater where engineers don 3-D glasses to inspect and eventually improve a design that does not yet exist in reality.
In fact, that is what the Tech Center and its Dangerously Smart Farm Boys are all about: Designing and bringing future products to market faster ever.
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