Right to repair doesn’t solve basic problem

Even if farmers can fix their own machines, they’re still wrestling with an unpredictable nebular cloud of electrons

Even if farmers win an absolute legal right to try to fix all of the technology behind their own machinery, that’s only half the equation. The digital complexity can result in lost productivity of machinery if it sits in the field for days waiting for the correct solenoid or sensor.

The situation is becoming worse, says David Yee, vice- president of operations at the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute. When he addressed Keystone Agricultural Producers recently, Yee provided some insight into two typical situations, both at PAMI last fall.

One involved the PAMI board chair and his new green combine.

“The sensor for low windshield washer failed,” Yee said.

“The fluid was full but the sensor said empty. The combine decided this wasn’t safe so it killed the ignition and shut the machine down in the field.

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“It sat there for three days. He was very, very frustrated. He kept paying the dealer tech representative to come down and take care of it, but then it would go off again.

“The other situation was a combine that PAMI bought new 1 1/2 years ago.

“There’s a sensor in the back of the straw chopper and it was failing, so it automatically went into source code engineering, which means it powered the combine down to 20 percent,” Yee said.

“We could keep combining, but only at 1.5 m.p.h.”

Yee said PAMI conducts a lot of research, and everything has to run on a tight schedule at harvest time, just like a commercial farm.

“We couldn’t wait,” he said.

“We parked the red combine and went out and rented another combine to finish our work.”

Yee said it’s time for the kind of serious troubleshooting most people can’t perform when a sensor kicks the whole system into source code engineering. A visit to the internet farmers discussion group Combine Forum will unearth a landslide of these technical problems with new combines, he added.

To understand why these things happen, a person has to first understand embedded layer systems.

Yee said new implements are equipped with multitudes of sensors designed to monitor the performance of the machine. This higher level of information lets the operator or the computer extract more performance from the implement. This in itself is good, he said.

“The bottom layer of that ELS is what we call the source code. All the sensors, switches, on-board computers and navigation are tied to that source code. This is the private computer language that’s unique to each manufacturer. The Agco source code computer language and the Case source code computer language are as different as Chinese and Norwegian.

“Why do they have these tightly guarded source codes? Because quite frankly, that’s the only thing upon which they can make an intellectual property claim. All the mechanical components are so old, there’s no way anyone can claim intellectual property rights. Axles, crankshafts, tires, glass, rotors, it goes on. Those items are so common, the manufacturers can’t claim intellectual property.

“But source code and software is different. You can make it so unique to your combine that you can say, ‘the combine will not function without our source code. The sensors we use only work with our IP.’ They install as many electronic devices as possible, tie them all to the source code, and make them all essential to the function of the machine. Now the entire combine becomes intellectual property and the manufacturer owns that intellectual property.”

Yee said there’s a flaw in the manufacturers’ logic. It’s a stretch for industry to try to argue that windshield washer fluid is essential to the function of a combine. The washer is secondary or tertiary or a fourth function. It’s not essential to the function, but the manufacturers will not concede that point. They will continue to extract maintenance money from the farmer out of all these devices tied to their source code.

“When I read that John Deere agreement in terms of common sense and what happens in the field, it tells me that it only allows me the right to use the tractor or the combine, but ownership remains in the hands of John Deere,” he said.

“The one key fact is that I do not have the right to take that machine and do my own repairs and my own alterations, so that machine isn’t really mine. The producers in Western Canada have that ownership ethic. They believe that in the purchase of machinery, they have the right to repair.”

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