Top Takeaways From Raven Summit

Perspective   The specter of the “Great Midwest Drought of 2012” hung over Sioux Falls as more than 200 equipment dealers, customers, and media types gathered at Raven Industries’ world headquarters for the company’s second Raven Innovation Summit.

The overarching discussion, as it often does in a roomful of stressed out aggies, was all about what’s going on with the crops, and the news was not good. In this area and south toward Omaha where we drove in along I-29, the corn looked every bit as bedraggled as has been described to us in the news. Growers should fare better here than farther east, as the corn is taller and has produced some ears. But there’s not much to be jealous about.

The beans look better but opinions are varied on how much, or even whether, they will produce in terms of pods. Optimists believe a little bit of moisture will do some serious good, but the jury is out.

Despite the challenges, there was a lot of enthusiasm among the Raven faithful this week. The company’s recent investments in a new training facility and a manufacturing plant, as well as renovations happening now at the headquarters building downtown are impressive and demonstrate the commitment Raven has to agriculture and to its future direction. I was particularly impressed that in an era where so little in the way of electronics is made here in the US that virtually everything Raven makes for agriculture – down to the wire cabling – is built domestically.

The specific updates and upgrades to products are being demonstrated today and released officially tomorrow, so we’ll be covering those in next week’s PrecisionAg eNews. But we did gets a chance to talk to a number of attendees and Raven luminaries, and as always we have some key takeaways to share.

API Update. It’s been a couple of years now that Raven opened itself up to partnership with other ag manufacturers through its Slingshot API program. The result is that to date, 34 companies have signed on the dotted line with Raven and are actively working on projects, and some have offerings all ready to go. Early success stories include manufacturers SST Software and Software Solutions Integrated, AgIntegrated, and AgSync, and more are on the way. Matt Burkhart, vice president and division general manager, said that creating this “open but controlled platform” is essential to “fulfill the vision to build the precision ag business platform of the future.”

Hardware Still Important. I’ve been wondering aloud if we’ve seen the pinnacle of new hardware advances in the in-cab computer/controller as agriculture comes to terms with the power of the cloud, and the compatibility and user-friendliness of tablet computers like the iPad. In talking with Burkhart and Paul Welbig, Raven’s director of marketing, product management and Slingshot operations, the hardware side will continue to be important but where the value is captured is starting to shift toward the services and solutions from outside the cab via API partners and Raven’s own initiatives.

I did not get a definitive idea how this change in value capture will affect the hardware strategy for its line of displays. Viper Pro, which was first released as the Viper some 10 years ago and is a predominant display in agriculture, would seem to be on an upgrade path in the near term, but with the API initiative and so much capability coming in from outside the computer (not to mention a new version of Windows on the horizon), it may take a bit longer for a decision to be made on what’s next for the popular display.

Welbig did add at the end, “Our engineers are always asking for more.”

Demonstrating The Benefits of Connectivity. There were a number of ride and drives and demo booths from API partners that demonstrated how connectivity can work and feel when fully executed, and there’s no doubt it’s impressive. The core of any plan like Raven’s Slingshot is the reliability and consistency of the communication platform … if growers are to be expected to fully buy in and engage, it has to feature iron clad reliability.

Monsanto Comments. I had to ask Burkhart his view on Monsanto’s acquisition of Precision Partners and its impact on the precision market. His take was that Monsanto’s very public challenges to raise yield goals by 2050 included traits, genetics and precision, and the acquisition is “confirmation of the value that precision holds in the ability to reach those goals.” It confirms what he says Raven has “believed all along, and we provide a full suite of technology available to help increase yield” in all four seasons of equipment.

Engaging The Unengaged. Despite advances in precision and the proliferation of technology there are still a lot of growers that don’t use technology they own effectively, don’t have interest in engaging in technology at all. I asked Welbig about this, and he said that education – leading to increased confidence – is really key. The evidence was all around us as we toured the company’s gleaming new training facility.

“We invest an awful lot of time in education with our dealers,” says Welbig. “We encourage them to put demo units into their trucks, both to get themselves fully comfortable and confident with the technologies and to provide demonstrations to growers.”

He also noted that Raven continues to try to engage growers that feel “left behind’ by the rapid advancement of technology by investing in education programs that champion education in the basics of precision such as the PrecisionAg Institute, in which they are a supporting partner.

Short Term Concerns. As I said, optimism tends to run very high at these dealer gatherings, but the drought has many dealers concerned about sales going into the fall. One dealer said growers, while not panicked, are frozen in place on purchasing decisions. “It’s as if they want proof that it is actually going to rain again,” one dealer quipped. “Because it feels like it’s never going to.”

Hopefully we can break out and get that magic moisture soon that revives confidence, and perhaps saves a bit more of the precious crop. But this week, it was really the one cloud in an overall sunny outlook in South Dakota.

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