John Deere Tractors Go Wireless For Remote TroubleshootingDeere & Co., the No. 2 company in the InformationWeek 500, adds remote diagnosis to farm and construction vehicles to build closer customer ties.
Think of a green John Deere combine harvesting wheat in a remote corner of Kansas, or a tractor in a cornfield in Argentina. The nearest technician might be hours away, so any breakdown can cost precious work time. Now picture a Deere dealer calling to tell the farmer that it looks like the air filter is wearing out, so could he come out to replace it soon before it causes a problem.
On more than 40,000 newer Deere vehicles, in 43 countries, a dealer now can do that kind of remote preventive monitoring and also diagnose trouble codes when they appear. Launched in 2011, the Service Advisor Remote software can capture machine readings, clear codes if there is a false alarm, and even wirelessly download a fix to the vehicle if there's a software-related problem.
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Deere & Co. has offered that kind of electronic diagnostics for 13 years, with its PC-based Service Advisor software. But that setup required a technician to visit the machine and connect the PC to it. As the coverage and bandwidth from cellular networks improved, and costs dropped, Deere decided it could add remote diagnostics, using a cellular service--with a satellite service option in some countries--that it calls JDLink.
And that decision threw the Deere IT team into a project unlike any it had done before.
Service Advisor Remote brings customer-facing IT to a new level. It had to integrate completely into the vehicles themselves, requiring intense quality and testing standards. And there was no room for missing a deadline--with Deere's manufacturing and marketing plans set, the new vehicles with the Service Advisor Remote option had to be ready to match that plan. For example, new U.S. environmental rules being phased in through 2015 require reduced emissions and thus will mean added complexity to the vehicles, so Deere saw a big value in remote diagnostics. The company wanted Service Advisor Remote ready as Deere rolled out vehicles that met those new standards.
One of the toughest challenges for the project's IT leaders, in fact, was coordinating their planning, deadlines, and processes with other business teams, including product engineering and marketing.
"We had to align with these other product cycles and make sure we were ready to deliver it at the right time when it was ready from a marketing standpoint," says Patrick Webber, who as VP of IT leads Deere's 2,500-person global IT operation. "As you do more of the consumer-oriented applications, you have to have really good discipline to make sure you're going to hit your dates, because you're working with a broader community."
When a dealer runs a remote diagnostic, the data is sent via the JDLink cellular service to Deere's data center. The dealer accesses it using a browser-based app and a client application, and the data is available to the vehicle owner, dealer, and Deere headquarters. Deere uses that data in two ways: It creates a database of problems and suggested remedies that dealer technicians can use, and it becomes "an early indicator that we can feed into the development process," Webber says, so that the company can spot problems sooner.
In developing the system, the Deere IT team worked hand in hand with product engineering and design teams to make sure it was delivering software that does what the product designers wanted and is as reliable as any knob, handle, or piston on the vehicle.
Agile programming techniques were the only way to go, Webber says, and this project marked a turning point in Deere's use of the development methodology.