Go to any agricultural conference, trade show or industry event, and you’ll witness firsthand the camaraderie between farmers, manufacturers, startups, dealers and distributors. Those who choose this line of work often share a love of the land and a mission to feed the world. While each sector of the industry approaches this goal in a different way, their contributions combine to advance agriculture in big ways.
Occasionally, a purposeful collaboration between industry players results in a powerful solution. This is the case with the ongoing partnership between three major agricultural companies: equipment manufacturer K.U.L.T.-Kress Cultivation Solutions, agricultural robotics startup Naïo Technologies, and seed distributor and equipment dealer Keithly-Williams Seeds. Together, the three industry giants came together to create an electric autonomous weeding robot that farmers actually want to use.
“Collaboration between organizations is what this industry really needs because everyone’s got a piece, but nobody’s got the whole puzzle,” says Nick Copass, Sales Manager at Keithly-Williams Seeds and the person who pushed K.U.L.T.-Kress and Naïo Technologies to partner on this project. “When we start marrying companies that each individually have great pieces and put them together, you have everything. Now, the customer truly benefits, and that's really the driving force behind this whole thing.”
Getting the pieces to fall into place, however, can be easier said than done. A successful partnership requires both sides to show their hands, share what they’ve got, and be open to incorporating ideas and feedback from all sides. When it came to the weeding robot project, the show-and-tell part took a little convincing.
For their part, K.U.L.T.-Kress has a storied past of improving existing machines. This began with the company’s founder, Walter Kress, who got his start working on machines specifically for organic farming. The company went on to produce tool carriers that could be added to existing machines before eventually developing its own proprietary weeding and cultivation systems with GPS camera steering.
Today, the company focuses primarily on its own solutions—including specialty machines, accessories and spare parts—and providing support for other robot systems. A big part of the everyday work is to provide education, share perspective, and learn from farmers and agricultural experts around the world.
Although it might seem like an ideal fit for an equipment manufacturer to work with an ag robotics startup, that wasn’t always the case. According to Christian Kirchhoff, Owner-Manager at K.U.L.T.-Kress, the company’s unique position made finding the right collaborator a challenge.
“Most companies are selling machines to farmers that should work in the field, and the farmer would get paid by the work those machines do,” Kirchhoff says. “We were not so successful in the beginning because all of these projects were in very early stages, and there were robots but no tools for the robots. That made it hard for the farmers to make money. It also made it hard for us to cooperate with the robot manufacturers because they were so focused on their robots and not on the function and the tools that would need to be carried to do a good job in the field.”
Kirchhoff says that this has changed a lot over time, but these experiences also helped K.U.L.T.-Kress to concentrate on its strengths. This means sharing its knowledge with customers and other companies to ensure both sides have the right solutions for their distinct needs. This can sometimes mean the company has to have challenging conversations with its partners.
“We believe that we have quite good experience for what is needed in the field, and sometimes our partners do not understand immediately because they come from a totally different point of view,” Kirchhoff says. “Sometimes it's very hard to explain that the machine will not work like this, it needs to be changed here and here. Then you’re the bad guy because it seems like you’re criticizing everything. But it's not negative. It's positive because we just see that some functions are not in the machine or cannot be fulfilled in the field like they should. When we have good cooperation with the development teams, we can work together to create value for the customers.”
As robots have moved from operating mostly under surveillance to doing hours of work mostly autonomously, K.U.L.T.-Kress has found more startups are willing to partner on making their machines commercially viable.
One such partner is Naïo Technologies. A pioneer in agricultural robotics solutions, the startup has built its reputation on delivering technologies that automate tedious farming tasks. This often requires Naïo Technologies to seek out strategic partnerships. Operations Manager Heath Latasa says that the company is collaborative in everything it does, especially when it comes to finding partners that share the startups’ values and overall goals.
Even when the stars align, however, Naïo Technologies is cautious about letting new partners into the fold. This is a natural inclination in the technology world where proprietary information needs to be protected. Copass experienced this reticence firsthand when trying to convince the startup to collaborate with K.U.L.T.-Kress. Keithly-Williams had been working with both companies in some form for the past four-to-five years, and Copass knew the two companies would be a good fit for one another. He just had to convince them to give it a shot.
“Christian Kirchhoff first came to me and told me that K.U.L.T. had started developing an electric head, but that Naïo didn’t want to take action to add it to their machine,” Copass says. “I told him, ‘Of course, they don’t want to take action. They’re selling a robot, and you’re selling a weeder. Why would they want to take action on something that benefits you when they’re trying to sell their own stuff?’ But, me being the dealer, I said that I would be the hammer because I don’t care about any of that. I just need this to work. I told Christian to get me the electric head, and I’d get Naïo to agree to put it on their machine.”
Copass kept his word. Even with K.U.L.T.-Kress fully on board, the magic didn’t happen overnight. The process required a lot of assurances, trust, Zoom calls and, of course, non-disclosure agreements. Copass even offered to use his own Orio, Naïo Technologies’ autonomous tool carrier for vegetables and industrial crops, to ensure the startup wasn’t risking anything Copass wasn’t willing to do himself.
“Up until the night before we actually did it, Naïo Technologies didn’t think it was feasibly possible to put the electric head on their machine, but three days later, we made it happen,” Copass says, noting that the engineers and technicians on both sides spoke the same language and worked together seamlessly. “The challenge was really just to get companies to listen to one another and not be so stubborn.”
The collaboration was a success. It provided the industry with a powerful solution. Still, Copass sees the lack of communication between many companies as an industry-wide problem. He often encounters innovators from around the globe that resist feedback about potential improvements. If the agricultural industry wants to advance its offerings and help farmers prosper, this needs to change.
“Once a company builds something, that's their baby, and they think that nothing's going to be better than this, that it's the cat's meow,” Copass says. “That’s great, however, you always need to be open to improvement. You always need to listen to what other people are saying or you get closed off. They may have made the greatest thing in the world, but someone else can make it better. Once companies start hearing that and going okay, these guys are really into it for their customers’ best interest, not for their own best interest, they’re willing to let you try it.”
The important thing, Copass says, is to keep the customer top of mind. While the technology is new, farmers have been doing their jobs for a very long time. They aren’t necessarily going to jump to buy the latest innovations. Startups, manufacturers and dealers have to be willing to play the long game to ensure the end customer’s continued success.
As Copass puts it, “I just don't see this as being a short-term revolution where we go from horse and buggy to rocket ships overnight.” In the meantime, companies can learn a lot from working together toward a common goal. Copass says his primary takeaway from the K.U.L.T.-Kress, Naïo Technologies and Keithly-Williams collaboration is that industry players need to be willing to hear one another out.
“The biggest thing is to listen,” he says. “Don't just shut people down, don't shut yourself off for two years because something doesn't look like it fits your model of business today. The thing that needs to be focused on is utility in the marketplace once functional. It’s important to ask, ‘what are people going to want to use and does this collaboration meet that objective?’ But we see so many companies that just want to sell their stuff and don't get involved in wanting to learn or listen. I think that's a mistake.”