by Adrian Langmead, Business Development Manager, Kubota UK
Celebrating Kubota’s 40th anniversary earlier this year was a brilliant milestone for our staff, but I’d also hope for our dealers and customers too. For any business to have been successful across four decades is impressive, but it does spur opinion about what the next four decades will have in store for us and our industry and for the future in groundscare.
The groundcare sector is big business for us, and will continue to be right through to 2060 and beyond. As part of our continued commitment to our dealers and customers it’s important to future-gaze and think about what could be in store for the sector, which could directly impact customers, positively or negatively. It’s important we are able to offer advice and consultancy on the pertinent issues affecting the industry, and to help our dealers and customers make the right decisions for their business’s needs.
The future groundsman will be human, not robot
When we think 40 years ahead in the future, it’s easy to get caught up in Blade Runner-esq visions of flying vehicles, dark days, a heavy polluted world and hydroponic farms. We’re constantly bombarded with stories from the media about robots threatening jobs, whilst at the same time telling us we should be thrilled about a future of automation as it’ll make our economies more productive, as reported by professionsal services firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) fairly recently. However, the good news is that many futurologists believe that, although AI is incredibly smart, it will never match human creativity and problem-solving.
When we consider the future of the groundcare industry, not necessarily as far ahead as 40 years’ time but in the near future, the World Economic Forum reports on battery powered equipment and how this will be the future of industries, taking over from diesel and petrol engines. This is certainly something worth discussing in our sector, which goes beyond just compliance and emissions targets but really how our industry will be powered.
The days of using scythes and sheep to keep grass short are may be in the past, but there are very few robotic machines that can fulfil the demands of a groundsman in today’s world. The industry will always require human intervention – by way of machine and chemical management and ultimately that problem-solving expertise that we mere mortals must cherish.
While we expect to be able to manufacture even sharper blades and build machinery out of lighter and tougher materials, we will still need groundsman to maintain them. However, the future groundsman will benefit from access to big data to measure the performance of the blades and machines. They’ll be able to spot any incremental changes they can make to get their turf to within millimetres of perfection.
Is the future fuel right under our noses?
The obvious answer to the future for fueling our industry is electricity. We see this trend making headway already with electric cars and delivery services on our streets as we speak. Recently, The Guardian newspaper reported that the UK Government handed Jaguar Land rover a contract worth £500m to guarantee to help accelerate its progress in the global electric vehicle race. The same article also stated that the government has plans for all new properties built to have EV charging points installed. While this new policy is an interesting development for the domestic market, will we go the same way in the ground keeping industry?
Battery technology currently has a long way to go. Groundsman need to use machinery for long periods of time before they would have the opportunity to recharge them and by current standards going electric would be cumbersome to put it mildly.
Battery power is also expensive, and it could get even more costly. With the rise of electric fuel, we should also expect to see a rise in the cost of raw materials that go into batteries like lithium, nickel and aluminum. It is estimated that by 2025, lithium prices will climb by a least 20% according to digital platform Interesting Engineering and this isn’t a cost that groundsman have the budget to swallow. Furthermore, the main issue for sustainable innovation in this area is that there’s no way to dispose of Lithium – it can’t currently be recycled and there are huge costs involved in mining for Lithium, which is ironically still powered by diesel machines!
Groundcare engines are subject to similar restrictions, as car manufacturers are having to adhere to ‘Stage V’ regulations which will doubtless be followed by Stage VI, Stage VII and so on. This means manufacturers will have to continue to adapt and put more technological innovation into engines to meet the ever-changing regulations. These changes are extremely costly to manufacturers, so the challenge is to innovate, remain compliant and sustainable whilst not inflating the end cost to the customer beyond what they can afford.
Autonomous vehicles are something which we will be examining in the UK, not with a view to replace humans, but to improve efficiency. In fact, we have already started the ball rolling in France with the introduction of an autonomous product range of mowers and tractors. With Brexit looming and the possible impact that this may have on staff availability in the UK, it is crucial to consider methods of improving productivity through the use of automated machinery, co-existing with groundsmen.
Within the next 40 years, I think we should expect to see a dramatic increase in automation in the groundcare sector. Not necessarily automation that sees robots tending to turf across Britain, however! The evidence suggests the creativity and expertise of our groundsman will survive the technological revolution, but the equipment and tools of the future will become more adept and help groundsman to become more efficient.
Fundamentally, the current industry focus is on alternative fuel sources in our near future, and rightly so, this is the biggest challenge of our time in the manufacturing business. This may well be viewed as a nuisance to the customer, but it’s a very real threat to the future of our industry. Sustainable development in engine and fuel development is crucial, so that our groundsman aren’t priced out of the equipment they need to fulfill their roles.