Cutting Edge Technology for Agricultural Machines

On the eve of EIMA 2018, the most important Italian event for the world of agricultural machinery, Alessandro Malavolti, President of FederUnacoma, takes stock of the performance of the sector and the technological evolution that starts with the machine components.

by Silvia Crespi

Precision agriculture; automatic control systems… in the agricultural machines industry technological innovation is very pronounced. Could you tell us about the latest results you obtained?
Agriculture today is indeed a very technological sector. Electronic and computer applications are used not only to optimize cultivation, but also to use production factors and natural resources scientifically and in a sustainable way. The challenge for agriculture is that of ensuring an increase in productivity, to satisfy the food and raw material needs of a rapidly growing world population and at the same time reducing the environmental impact of treatments, containing water consumption, foreseeing weather events, perfecting cultivation and gathering operations. All of this is possible by means of the use of computerized and automated control and management systems. 4.0 technologies are important in agriculture even more than in other sectors, because agriculture is a sort of open-air building site where production occurs among many variables which change all the time, all of these being factors which we can monitor and keep under control. Even everything which revolves around machinery is the subject of an increasing specialization. Components are more and more advanced. The growing success of the EIMA Componenti trade show proves it.

Could you tell us about this?
Actually agricultural mechanics progressed formidably in all segments, but components proved in the past years to be among the most strategic ones. Much of the technological innovation which characterizes modern agricultural machines and equipment derives from the evolution of components. Companies specializing in the design and production of single mechanical parts, or electronic systems, invest in the innovation of their products and contribute substantially to the improvement of the performances of the finished mechanical equipment. Components industries – for which the EIMA Componenti trade show is one of the most important and prestigious showcases worldwide – do not only cover the supplies for manufacturers of finished machines, but also guarantee the system of spare parts and all the accessories for the improvement and customization of machines. They are therefore aimed at a very wide market, where Italian industries have an important role. Market leadership is obtained by means of product quality but it is maintained by innovation, and our industries do not stop investing in research, looking in every direction including the use of new materials capable of improving the properties of the products.

Could you tell us something about the possibilities offered by digitization to companies operating in the agricultural machine segment?
I am referring to the use of sensors, drones and video cameras, for the continuous and remote control of plots of land and so on. What is happening in agriculture is a silent and invisible revolution, because a company adopting 4.0 systems does not look different from any other. Actually the activities which are going on inside it are regulated by a thick web of information sent by means of little devices which communicate data regarding temperature, humidity, weather conditions of every little plot of land, or by information transmitted by satellites which are capable of completing a map of the land and transfer to computers installed on board the machines all the information concerning slopes, humidity and specific characteristics of each plot, to ensure that the behavior of the machines is tailored to these properties. Sensors and digital systems make it possible to monitor the movements of mechanical equipment, Isobus electronic systems allow optimal regulation of the relationship between the tractor and the equipment connected to it, while fleets of drones may collect and transmit images of the health conditions of the crops.
Sensor systems may monitor the condition of the health of the farmed animals, besides helping agricultural operators in working with mechanical equipment preventing faults and accidents. In short, digital technologies change agricultural work, and they also change the profile of the farmer, who in the future will be a sort of computer operator, a specialist capable of managing the company in all its functions from a central station which could also be physically far from the company’s land.

Is the lack of resources with competence adequate to the ongoing changes a problem even in your sector?
The changes in agriculture actually do involve an evolution in the competence of operators. Long-standing farmers are increasingly interested in electronic and computer innovations and it would be necessary, now more than ever, to set up a program to train operators to use digital tools even with public support. But it is especially from new generations that we might expect an evolution in professional profiles. Our segment suffered in the past from a sort of social prejudice against everything which was linked to farming and therefore perceived by the public as “traditional” or, worse still, “outdated”. Involving new generations is therefore also a cultural challenge, which we as a Federation try to tackle with training and awareness-raising initiatives aimed at secondary school and university students meant to describe the new professions linked to agriculture and specifically to agricultural mechanics. Several of these very interesting initiatives are scheduled for the next EIMA.

Let us now discuss the trends of the segment. The first six months of the year showed a slight decrease. What do you envisage by the end of the current year?
The Italian market has just gone through over a decade of crisis, due to a set of factors, first of all the decrease in agricultural revenues which reduced the capability of investing in next generation machines and equipment. Last year the registrations of tractors grew considerably, not so much on account of ordinary market dynamics as because of the effect of a community norm, the Mother Regulation, which introduced new criteria for the approval of machines and therefore forced industries to accelerate the registration of machines in stock. The decrease in the first half of the year is the rebound of that peak of forced registrations recorded at the end of 2017, but in the second part of the year there has been an upswing and we envisage to close the year with sales of about 19,500 tractors, a result which shows a slight improvement with respect to the average level of the last few years. Looking at foreign markets, the demand for agricultural machinery is still potentially very high, especially in emerging countries, and this favours the Italian industry which has a product with a high quality level and is present on foreign markets, with exports accounting for about 70% of its production.