Digital twin technology to overcome ag labor challenge

AgCast is our look at the future of agriculture, how technology will shape the evolution of the industry and the implications of that change to agrimarketers. 

Quality agriculture labor and the technology conundrum

Agriculture business owners around the country can’t find the right qualified labor to get the job done. When a utility contractor hangs a “Help wanted” sign on the door, the plethora of qualified applicants don’t exist today that there would have been 20 years ago, and those who do apply have a lot more options than they used to.

As an Iowa ag marketing guy, I have had the privilege to talk with farmers, ranchers, contractors and business owners. These conversations have taught me a lot about how these occupations differ, but more importantly, how they’re similar.

A certified arborist in California, a rancher in Indiana and a heavy equipment contractor in Louisiana: While their positions have specific, unique challenges, there are some commonalities that are universal among them and scores of other sectors of our economy today. Finding qualified employees with the skills needed for the high-tech future is one of them.

Technology has a lot to do with sustaining and growing businesses and the U.S. economy as a whole. Just like what the original assembly line did for Henry Ford’s Model T, today’s mechanization, advanced manufacturing and innovations like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are rapidly becoming capable of doing jobs that were once only in human hands.

Digital twin technology isn’t taking our jobs

It’s accomplishing tasks that enable us to do new and different jobs as our economy and culture evolve. The same thing happened when agriculture became mechanized. Farmers now sit in high-tech tractor cabs and no longer use horses to pull a one-row moldboard plow, we’re simply continuing to evolve.

One example is how farmers and contractors maintain machinery. Soon, gone will be the day when a tractor breakdown requires a visit from a dealership service tech or a trip into town. The same will be true for service technicians. They’ll be able to conduct maintenance remotely, showing customers what they need to do with a level of detail once only possible in person. It’s called digital twin technology.

Through a set of visual sensors and machinery schematics, the service technician can be on the farm without actually being on the farm. Operators could potentially stand in front of their machines in the field, on the job or in the maintenance shop with augmented reality imagery projected to show the difference between a fully functioning machine and the ones in front of them. Between the service technician’s expertise, the operator’s understanding of the breakdown and the direct comparison of a broken-down and functional machine, the problem can be diagnosed and repaired, all while minimizing downtime.

In addition, digital twin technology will one day revolutionize the manufacturing process by augmenting human operators’ capabilities, building new efficiencies and entirely changing processes in factories around the world. Yes, it will likely lead to fewer workers involved in the process of assembling tractors and skid steers, but it will also create demand for workers who can operate and manage augmented reality systems, because, at least for the foreseeable future, these technologies will require a human being to operate them and oversee things like manufacture and maintain machinery.

Marketing shifts for digital twin technology application

There are marketing implications to this change, too, though not in the traditional business-to-consumer sense. A machinery company will create new manufacturing and maintenance processes that will be specific to individual pieces of equipment, and though the basic skillsets required of manufacturers and technicians today will remain critical in the future, they’ll also be called upon to learn how digital twin technology systems will work to accomplish those jobs. So, a center-pivot irrigation system manufacturer will have an entirely different set of qualifications for its digital twin technicians than a baler manufacturer, all based specifically on the equipment on which people will be working — and more importantly, the equipment on which their customers will be working.

These changes will require new internal marketing initiatives to educate and attract qualified people to apply for these jobs, and companies will need to do more to attract and retain good people. That may mean a service tech will telecommute to a farm shop or dealership from 200 miles away. The successful companies in this new digital twin technology era will be those who can develop the internal marketing and training programs to first attract, but then retain the right people by providing the right training and instruction.

The same will be true for customers. Farmers may not be the quickest customer segment to embrace a change like digital twin technology, so the right education will be what shows customers the value, based on factors like productivity, efficiency and cost. The machinery companies who can convey these messages to their customers the best will be those who flourish when digital twins become the industry standard.

It will be a few years before digital twin technology will be considered the new standard in the farm equipment sector. But given its potential for both manufacturers and their customers, it’s likely to gain traction as the technology becomes cheaper and more accessible. What will you need to do today to get ready?

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