ISO: An Elusive Destination

Agriculture embarked on a road trip of sorts more than 10 years ago when the ISO 11783 standard was first drafted. The standard promised a destination of complete machinery compatibility; a place where plug-and-play functionality means we can mix and match brands and colors and types of equipment to our heart’s content, and it all communicates and shares and — works.

The standard has garnered a lot of attention during the past year, with several manufacturers vocally committing current and future product development to ISO 11783. But what does it really mean for users of ag technology now and in the future?

The first step to understanding the significance of ISO 11783 is coming to terms with some basic truths. The first one is that the standard was, is and probably always will be a work in progress. In other words, it’s more of a journey than a destination, especially in the short term.

Paul Welbig, marketing and business development manager at Raven Industries, says what manufacturers have agreed to on ISO standards is relatively skeletal so far. “There is a low level of approved ISO standards that encompass the framework, but beyond that there are still revisions and discussions and arguments over details that will get us standards beyond that base level.”

What this means is that ISO-compliant equipment might well communicate at a base level, but many of the premium options may be unavailable or not optimized on an ISO-compliant “virtual terminal.” Displays become blocky and plain, or worse not work at all for certain features.

“We’re closer than ever to full ISO compliance, but there is still a lot of work to do at all levels,” says David Swain, advanced technology solutions business development manager at AGCO Corp. “There are still companies that do not want to let go of their sandbox, fearing a loss of market share and sales once they open up their architecture.”

Getting Buy-In

Swain’s comments relate to the second issue with ISO 11783: The amount of compatibility that will be achieved in the long term will be proportional to the amount of industry buy-in over the short and medium term. It’s hard to blame manufacturers for wanting to preserve their businesses in this dog-eat-dog industry, but it is and will continue to slow the movement to a standardized vision of ag equipment.

Is this a bad thing? For users who would like to have all their functionality available in a single terminal, it will mean less flexibility to use different brands of equipment. For users who don’t mind, or would even prefer to separate basic machine features from the more “premium” features such as monitoring yield and automatic swathing, it’s less of a problem. The ISO structure will provide some benefit, and additional compatibility will only increase the options available down the road.

For ISO 11783 supporters, there has been good news. “We had a landmark event last year at the Louisville Farm Equipment Show, where all three major manufacturers displayed equipment with the same ISO connector,” notes Mike Gomes, agricultural product manager, Topcon Positioning Systems. “It was a significant milestone for the industry.”

On the other hand, getting past the base level of ISO compliance will continue to be tricky because innovations are quite often coming from companies that are not resourced to develop their innovations on multiple platforms. Having to choose between the still-evolving ISO standard platform and the company’s own platform, the latter is less risky and more beneficial.

Given the uncertainty, what should users do? Gomes says while most growers don’t have a long term “electronics strategy” for their farms, now might be the time to consider one. Take a broader look at how you intend to streamline your operation over the next two to five years, including the kinds of equipment and capabilities you will require, and get advice from equipment dealers and trusted advisors. Purchasing solely based on ISO compatibility won’t deliver on its future promise today, but ignoring it entirely is short-sighted.

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