Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers (wired.com)
281 points by wycx on Feb 5, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 164 comments



A DRM exception for farmers? Why them and not the rest of us?

Farmers are the classic American go-to for everything politics. Be it guns, corn in Coke, pollution standards, healthcare, immigration ... everyone is ready to pity the poor farmer. I understand the rational. Farmers make the food we eat. They also embody an American fantasy harkening back to the old west. But this is also who I see red flags whenever I hear farmers brought up in reference to a law.

Farmers are the purchasers of equipment used in their business. Why give them a pass to bypass DRM but not the fishermen? Fishermen make food. Maritime law affords them special treatment in a similar manner as land use laws treat farmers. Surely fishermen have an equal tradition of self-sufficiency and are also deserving of an exception. And then come the taxi companies who have long maintained their own fleets. Soldiers? Surely we first need an exemption for the armed forces.

I cannot think of any profession without a tradition of maintaining its own equipment. That's probably because DRM is new tech. So it's impossible for anyone to have a tradition of accommodating and obeying DRM. As we all suffer it, we should all be free of it. No exemptions.

Let us instead pity the poor metal worker whose CNC machine cannot be moved across the shop floor without triggering its GPS-dependant DRM.

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140109/03060325817/lates...


I totally agree on your assessment of the weird politics around farmers. But I also thought that the article was a good illustration of the general issues around DRM. Sometimes it takes a compelling example to illustrate a general principle. Until now I wasn't particularly opposed to DRM (at least when it used technical, rather than legal, mechanisms). But this article shows how locking people out of equipment they own has a tendency to be used in an economically inefficient way. In this case, milking people for repair costs that they don't fully consider when judging the purchase price.

I guess the counterargument is that DRM protects people from themselves (in this case, making repairs that would be better done by a professional). But the article made a good case for a lot farmers really wanting to be able to repair their own equipment.


Hopefully it is obvious that without DRM "protecting people from themselves" is still better served; with DRM the only winner is the company who locks out everyone else.

Example of how it might work without DRM: Farmer A hesitates to bypass the flaky hydraulic sensor. His $100,000 tractor is offline for about 2 days each season, and he pays $2,000 each time to have a specialist come check the hydraulic system with specialist tools.

Farmer B is foolish and just shorts the wires on his sensor. The hydraulic system has a massive failure and he faces a $50,000 repair bill.

Of course, with DRM, both farmers are forced to pay John Deere certified techs who are in short supply during harvest season (all the tractors are breaking down) and who therefore feel justified charging $10,000 for the rush service. Also the parts can only be replaced with Genuine John Deer replacement parts. Basically only John Deere comes out the winner here.


This behavior can be found in all markets out there, regardless of the scope. And then comes beauty of free market - over longer term, taking acount bigger mass of farmers for example, more desired product should win. There are many tractor manufacturers, and if John Deere is deemed cp manufacturer in long term, some other makers will eat its market share, either by providing simpler machinery (ie trend mentioned in article when farmers buy older models), or open one.

If farmers as a whole are "not-so-clever" though, and they keep buying new ones (ie voting with their money for fragile new tech), then they deserve the new tech "punishment".

Lesson to be learned here - be conservative about new technology and buy only long-proven solutions, regardless how much average HN Joe might not like this non-cool approach.

Also, fully agree that they shouldn't be made any more special than other jobs. Maybe ideal would to completely lose warranty (ie like iphone jailbreak), but making it criminal act is way too much.


Well that wasn't obvious to me, but you explained it well. As you say, it's as much about controlling the market for professional repairs as it is preventing DIYers.

It reminds me of how much more expensive it was to get my car serviced at a name brand gas station than a local car shop.


> Let us instead pity the poor metal worker whose CNC machine cannot be moved across the shop floor without triggering its GPS-dependant DRM.

There's more to it than that. Machines in the sub .0001 precision class are so sensitive to being moved around that it can take weeks of careful calibration to get them to operate within spec. That 'gps-lockdown' is to make sure the machine doesn't get moved around just for the heck of it taking it out of spec and then having the manufacturer turn up after a bunch of complaining.

I'm not saying that that isn't being abused in this particular case but there actually can be good reasons for this. Ostensibly another reason is that some guy in Iran could set up a shop in the US as a front, buy a bunch of these machines and then ship them to evade an embargo so that's why they are locked to location.

In the case of high precision milling machines sometimes they have the machine make it's own calibrated clamp down area to compensate for any deformation suffered during a move. With lathes the situation is even more complex.

The calibration gear costs a multiple of what the machine itself costs, usually works on the laser-interferometry principle and is removed off-site after the initial calibration (it takes a totally different set of knowledge to operate than the knowledge required to operate the machine). So you can't just pick that machine up, move it 10', move it back and expect it to still produce acceptable work.


>That 'gps-lockdown' is to make sure the machine doesn't get moved around just for the heck of it taking it out of spec and then having the manufacturer turn up after a bunch of complaining.

Nonsense. If they move it, then that spoils the calibration, sure, but rendering it inoperable is stupid. Also why would the mfr complain about having to recalibrate the machine, they get paid for that if you're the one that ruined it. You also seem to assume that machinists are mere button pushers following instructions. A good experienced machinist knows more about his/her machine's capabilities/precision than anyone ITT. Hell, for the machine we're talking about, the machinist may well be an ME and if not, then probably one won't be far from it.

>Ostensibly another reason is that some guy in Iran could set up a shop in the US as a front, buy a bunch of these machines and then ship them to evade an embargo so that's why they are locked to location.

Also nonsense. Let's not pretend that Iranians (as in Iranian physicists) are too stupid to defeat such a scheme.

>The calibration gear costs a multiple of what the machine itself costs, usually works on the laser-interferometry principle

No way. This is all just hand-waviness and big-words. Laser interferometry systems have gotten much cheaper, more portable; and purpose built instruments are available for all manner of trades.

Here, a maintenance mechanic job posting that requires knowledge of "laser interferometer system" http://jobview.monster.com/Maintenance-Mechanic-offre-emploi...

Now either that is a very special maintenance mechanic, or laser-interferometry is more common than you thought.


> but rendering it inoperable is stupid.

No, it's prudent.

Having to toss a few hundred K worth of product is stupid.

> Also why would the mfr complain about having to recalibrate the machine, they get paid for that if you're the one that ruined it.

Because once there is a pile of money on the line people tend to forget that they moved the machine.

> You also seem to assume that machinists are mere button pushers following instructions.

No, but calibrating a machine after installation is a job that requires different tools and skills than operating a machine.

> A good experienced machinist knows more about his/her machine's capabilities/precision than anyone ITT.

More than the designers in some cases. But that's the exception, not the rule. Typical machine operators are definitely not in the same class as the technicians that install the machinery and calibrate it. Though over the years some of them can become experts on their machine over and beyond what anybody else knows about it, and they can gain the ability to coax workpieces from them with accuracy beyond what the machines are spec'd to.

> Hell, for the machine we're talking about, the machinist may well be an ME and if not, then probably one won't be far from it.

That still doesn't mean he/she has the expert view on what goes on inside it. In my experience machinists tend to be experts on materials, tooling, cooling, clamping, feeds & speeds, QA, packaging and sometimes alloys.

They tend to be less knowledgeable about electronics, motorized drives, software, environmental factors.

>>Ostensibly another reason is that some guy in Iran could set up a shop in the US as a front, buy a bunch of these machines and then ship them to evade an embargo so that's why they are locked to location.

> Also nonsense. Let's not pretend that Iranians (as in Iranian physicists) are too stupid to defeat such a scheme.

Let me cite a representative of a manufacturer:

" Sorry you've not had a stellar service experience. PM me with your info, names, etc. and I'll make sure you get better support.

Regarding the device, Weapons of Mass Destruction. Worst case for a negligent violation would be Dr. Mori himself spending time in the slammer. That along is enough motivation for DMG MORI to follow the regulation very carefully. Other reasons include all of those stated above!

btw, no need to waste time on bypassing it. It is pretty solid. We have to make it so Iran, N. Korea, etc's best can't bypass it. "

http://www.practicalmachinist.com/vb/dmg-mori-gildemeister-m...

> No way. This is all just hand-waviness and big-words. Laser interferometry systems have gotten much cheaper, more portable; and purpose built instruments are available for all manner of trades.

Yes, amazingly miniaturization and such work even for expensive gear. That doesn't mean it's suddenly much less expensive though it is definitely a bit cheaper than in the past when the technology was brand new.

Just the setup is a couple of days (to reach thermal equilibrium), a basic system is a few tens of thousands of dollars, a system capable of simultaneous alignment of a 5 axis machining center to within a fraction of a thou will be a tad more than that. Operators of that gear aren't free either.

> Now either that is a very special maintenance mechanic, or laser-interferometry is more common than you thought.

Or maybe there are multiple classes of such instruments for various applications and ranges of precision?

Note how that job posting is for a maintenance mechanic and not for a machinist?


>No, it's prudent.

Trigger the "tilt sensor" require a supervisory override. Call it uncalibrated operation. Now it's on the machine owner. Not your problem anymore.

>Because once there is a pile of money on the line people tend to forget that they moved the machine.

Fine, detect movement if you don't trust the owners (you shouldn't), stick it to the floor with a serial numbered bolt, whatever. Disabling the machine is a step too far.

>They tend to be less knowledgeable about electronics

Which makes them easy marks doesn't it?

>btw, no need to waste time on bypassing it. It is pretty solid. We have to make it so Iran, N. Korea, etc's best can't bypass it. "

/u/MoriGuy is a fool. Iran in particular has some very good schools, and no doubt could defeat this scheme in any number of ways. This is only hurting non-Iranian customers.

>miniaturization and such work even for expensive gear. That doesn't mean it's suddenly much less expensive though

Actually, it does. You may not be able to by them at Home Depot yet, but you can find them in tradesmen's tool kits, and in all manner of other uses that wouldn't be possible without relatively inexpensive equipment.

>Note how that job posting is for a maintenance mechanic and not for a machinist?

Pick ones that you like then. It was third in the list of results for me. https://duckduckgo.com/?q=Laser+interferometry+millwright&t=...


> /u/MoriGuy is a fool. Iran in particular has some very good schools, and no doubt could defeat this scheme in any number of ways. This is only hurting non-Iranian customers.

Tell that to US politicians.

If the US demands that its trading partners make such machinery tamper proof you really can't go and blame the manufacturers for actually complying with those regulations and doing a reasonably good job of it. Whether or not it has the intended effect is not actually their problem.

Agreed that disabling the machine is in some cases a step too far but having witnessed just how ugly these disputes tend to get in some cases it is actually a benefit because it puts a limit on the damage done.

You're arguing for a 'warranty void' kind of sticker. But that would not take care of the worries of the lease companies (who are probably the biggest beneficiaries of this kind of lock-out mechanism).


>Tell that to US politicians.

Ugh. I think we can both agree that there are some problems here. I wish I knew how to go about solving them.

>Whether or not it has the intended effect is not actually their problem.

How far they go abusing their advantage, is.

>You're arguing for a 'warranty void' kind of sticker.

Not 'warranty void' pre se, but a 'we don't guarantee performance beyond some threshold without a factory certified calibration.'

>But that would not take care of the worries of the lease companies (who are probably the biggest beneficiaries of this kind of lock-out mechanism).

What a self-defeating tactic! Customer didn't make their lease payment; better make sure they can't make the next one either!



>That 'gps-lockdown' is to make sure the machine doesn't get moved around just for the heck of it taking it out of spec and then having the manufacturer turn up after a bunch of complaining.

I thought the same thing when reading this article: maybe the tractor manufactures don't want farmers fiddling with the timing because there's no reason to be fiddling with the timing. Perhaps the desire to do so is force of habit on the farmer's part, the product of dealing with old equipment for many years, combined with a little bit of "I know better" hubris.

That said, if you're willing to waive your warranty, everything should be fair game,


I was chatting with an operator of a Cat excavator who was building retaining walls with large rocks. His machine is chipped to produce more HP, the hydraulic pump is tweaked to allow a higher pressure, hoses and seals are upgraded as they fail.

According to Cat there is no reason for him to do this, it will only cause seals, hoses, etc to wear out faster.

According to him, the owner of the machine who has to live with it each day there is a reason - because he wants to and it is his machine. He knows the downsides, but he also knows he can lift larger rocks higher and faster than he can with a stock machine - so it is worth it to him.

If the owner of a machine wants to ruin it or improve it, I think that is their right to do so - at the risk of the warranty.

On a different note - I can easily change the fuel filter on my car. The problem is I don't have the software to tell it that I've done so and to prime the fuel system before starting. I'm left in the same boat, gray market cables to talk to the car or pay through the nose for the dealer to push a few buttons. I've had thoughts of ditching "modern" cars for an awesome restored classic that can be worked on. The price is about the same.


I was friends (past tense because he died of a heart attack) with a guy who operated an excavator (~12,000 pound Kubota KX161-3S) up in the Santa Cruz mountains. We've got some pretty steep terrain here. He has walked that excavator into places you simply would not believe it could go.

I bought that excavator from him and the company replaced it with a newer model with more "safety" features. According to him if you got on too steep of a slope it shut itself off. Super, super dangerous.

Yeah, I get it, he was pushing past the point where he was completely safe. His choice and he could do things with that machine, amazing things. I'm not a fan of the direction heavy equipment is going.


That's not just a warranty issue, that's also dangerous.

He simply needs a larger machine.


I normally agree with you but I can imagine situations where a small pimped out machine is better than a bigger one. Especially in suburban areas, you might not be able to get the big machine to the back yard for example.

Other than that, I'm in the bigger is better camp :)


Nicely said. Otherwise this leads to TAAS quickly (Tractor as a service) and monthly payment just for being able to use it. Or Tesla as a service - where you not only buy a vehicle but also a recurring profit to the manufacturer and a long list of things you have to do or are not allowed to do. Oops, we're already there.


They have been doing precision equipment long before the DRM era.

This is a particular case of abuse from the manufacturer. I can think of several ways to let the shop owner have his way without playing the "mis-calibration" song. Besides, any set-up procedure can be used again to calibrate the device.

Edit: After reading their brochure, I am now convinced this is a case of DRM overreaching; the machine is in no way that sensitive to relocation to warrant a lock-down. Hey, they pride themselves with the machine's strength on page three: "... designed according to principles of finite element method", with a picture showing the machine stresses.


Yes, I know. And since long before then there have been endless back-and-forths between manufacturers of such equipment and their customers about achievable precision.

Especially after initial delivery and after initial calibration. And of course nobody would ever move such a machine and forget to tell the manufacturer that that's what they did.

The strength of the web is a huge factor in machine precision (and repeatability, just as important) but what you don't get out of that brochure is that just lifting and putting that machine back down again will put it seriously out of spec, the deformation incurred will require a complete recalibration. Dealing with dynamic loading is a different problem entirely.

We're talking about machines where thermal compensation is considered a normal thing and where you compensate for toolwear.

Not all of these machines are owned outright (they can be very expensive), plenty of them are leased and lease companies just love it when a customer goes out of business and their expensive goods have grown legs and have walked off.

Anyway, DRM without valid reasons is a bad thing, but there are some reasons why not wanting to move machinery like this around without knowing about it is a good thing and you've provided no reason why it isn't, obviously, you can petition the manufacturer to help assist in a move and re-calibration if required (nothing stops you from doing that in the present day), and your conclusion that the machines strength means it does not have to be calibrated is out of touch with reality as far as I'm aware of it.

Those unlock-codes are provided for free to the buyer of the machinery, and it isn't even a given that they will always trigger for every kind of move. (But at a guess, if you simulated shipping one in a container I'm pretty sure that it will come out dead.)

FWIW I worked on the software of an older generation of machinery like this and have spent enough time watching teams calibrate them to have serious respect for how easy it is to knock a machine to 'useless' territory.

As for the bad version of DRM: Mitutoyo had some equipment ending up in Iran contravening the US export ban (pretty weird that a Japanese company could be found in violation of a US export ban, but there are probably relevant details that I'm not aware of), so that's where the DRM component comes in.

So if you really want to complain about that aspect then you should petition the government, not the CNC manufacturers.

But "lock-down, unlock through mfg" has other uses too.

(You could easily imagine that the Gyro software could be set up in such a way that if the change in location was minor that it would not cause a lock-down if the export restriction were the real concern here)

Which makes me wonder how these would fare during earthquakes.


Agree on all points.

For what is worth, the last page of the brochure says black on white in a visible font that device relocation is subject to Japan's export restrictions. They don't care if your machine stops and they are under no obligation to make it work again.

Now, if it is _also_ about precision, then the contract will probably have some fine print about it too...


These machines are usually sold and installed through 'certified dealerships', in other words, people making money on having spent the time to learn how to properly sell and service this stuff prior to and after delivery.

That's a fair investment and I wouldn't put it past them (the dealers) to pull tricks, for instance to charge for supplying an unlock code (which they really should not do, you can always switch to a different dealer if they do though).

The manufacturer however has very little say in what happens to the machines after they leave the factory, though to comply with ITAR I believe the codes are only produced at the source so I guess they theoretically could strongarm someone into paying a fee for equipment they already own.

But any manufacturer that would do this would generate a lot of headwind and word gets around very quickly in the metalworking world. Such a manufacturer would not be selling much longer.

A colleague of mine had a very large and precise (those two a contradictory, so you can guess at the kind of expense involved) machining center installed and it took two months before the workpieces were acceptable.

That machine too had a gyro and it was definitely there with 'dual purpose', on the one hand the ITAR compliance made it mandatory but I'm pretty sure that both parties were happy the gyro was there in one case to prove that it had not been moved and in the other to make sure that it wasn't moved.

There's a lot of money riding on machinery like this, imagine QA at the recipient of a load of parts deciding that they're worthless scrap and then you're arguing with the manufacturer whether or not the machine is at fault or you are at fault because you have shifted the machine. Better if everybody is on the same page in situations like that.


> it took two months before the workpieces were acceptable.

For a new manual Bridgeport knee mill, it may be more than two months before the machinist who runs it is happy with it.

>There's a lot of money riding on machinery like this, imagine QA at the recipient of a load of parts deciding that they're worthless scrap

How is that even possible for a competent/honest machine shop? As if the shop doesn't inspect its output. Is there some sort of CNC-vending-machine business model that I haven't heard of where clients email their CAD files to the machine and next week a freight truck arrives with the stuff?


> How is that even possible for a competent/honest machine shop?

Because measuring things is hard.

> As if the shop doesn't inspect its output.

Of course they do. And even then it can still happen that what passes inspection at the shop (especially in early runs) does not pass muster with the recipient.

Which is why you don't want to be moving your equipment around if you can help it. Depending on the precision required it really doesn't take much to go from 'pass' to 'scrap' and it is not rare at all for the incoming inspection to reject parts that were accepted at the production facility. This is logical because there is money on the line.

> Is there some sort of CNC-vending-machine business model that I haven't heard of where clients email their CAD files to the machine and next week a freight truck arrives with the stuff?

You seen to have missed the internet revolution in machining, but yes that's exactly the model these days.

Only I'd replace 'machine' with 'machine shop' or 'production facility'.


>Because measuring things is hard.

Harder than making things? No, absolutely not.

>And even then it can still happen that what passes inspection at the shop (especially in early runs) does not pass muster with the recipient.

That's a communication problem. Happens often enough, but DRM does nothing to fix it.

>You seen to have missed the internet revolution in machining, but yes that's exactly the model these days.

I know that may be what people want but that's still a fantasy for precision machining. I don't think anyone is near the point that you can fire the machinists and simply hire someone to sweep up the tailings, refill the oil tanks, and slap shipping labels on things, (and then I suppose cash the checks from your mountain chalet).


> Harder than making things? No, absolutely not.

Measuring a shape in 3D with a given accuracy is immensely harder than making a shape in 3D with that same accuracy.

Just one example that might convince you of this:

Take any old lathe, and a micrometer. Run the lathe, cut yourself a nice chunk of hss shaft to 25 mm diameter, precision 1/100th of a mm, cut it off at 25 mm long.

Now try to imagine all the ways in which that object that you just made can be non-cylindrical, in which the planes can be non-parallel and what kind of other deformities such as tip-radius artifacts there might be. If you're going to use your trusty micrometer to measure it you will not be able to detect much if any of that. It will take a very expensive setup to be able to determine within 1/100th of a mm what the exact shape of that thing you made is.

> That's a communication problem. Happens often enough, but DRM does nothing to fix it.

True, but specifically 'machine has not been tampered with' can make such communications problems a lot easier to solve. Having witnessed exactly that scenario here recently I'm fairly convinced that without the gyro to prove the machine had not been tampered with that it would have been a lot longer discussion, possibly even a court case.

This happened post delivery and the machine was for interesting reasons unable to reach the advertised accuracy. It took months to get that one solved and the bill caused by the downtime was substantial.

> I know that may be what people want but that's still a fantasy for precision machining. I don't think anyone is near the point that you can fire the machinists and simply hire someone to sweep up the tailings, refill the oil tanks, and slap shipping labels on things, (and then I suppose cash the checks from your mountain chalet).

Who spoke about firing the machinists?

The thing is that between the design department and the machining center there is a series of well defined steps and then a whole pile of machine specific knowledge to get a part to come out right. But the whole chain is digital now, in the interest of repeatability, including tool management, stand times, deformation correction and so on.

It's not rare at all for client and supplier to be continents away from each other and they're definitely not going to visit each other in order to get some part produced.

This also means the market got a lot more competitive which means that inbound quality control is a very important factor in keeping everybody in the chain reliable.

Unattended operation including auto-feed has been done for years and it's not rare at all to see one operator/machinist run 5 machines.


> The strength of the web is a huge factor in machine precision (and repeatability, just as important)

Precision is repeatability.


> Machines in the sub .0001 precision class are so sensitive to being moved around that it can take weeks of careful calibration to get them to operate within spec.

But now you're talking about something else. You don't need a law to prohibit people from voiding their warranty and ruining their own property, darwinism takes care of that all by itself.

All the law needs to do is say that if you bypass the lockout you lose your warranty. Sending people to prison for it is insane.


Nobody got sent to prison for that.


The original food pyramid differentiated red meat, evidence was already raising flags. Farmers protested, had it changed, and the senator working on it didn't get re-elected. Even today, our "food plate" doesn't call out red meat. It's entertaining to see USDA skirt the issue: none of their protein pictures are steak [1].

Compare and contrast against an evidence based model from Harvard [2].

The poor dietary recommendations provided by the USDA historically may have a lot to do with our obesity epidemic.

Don't mess with farmers.

[1] http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/protein-foods-tips.... [2] http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-p...


It's not a matter of pity or romanticism. Becoming dependent on imports for food is a national security concern. That's why farmers get subsidies and special treatment.


Where I work now, I'm basically paid to break into this stuff for a living. Its nothing but a mountain of 10-20 year old "protected" protocols. All of which are now unsupported, obsolete, or completely forgotten by long out of business companies.

If the farmers think its bad now, just wait a few years. DRM hurts everyone. Its like toxic waste. A huge externalized cost that lets a company eke out a small short term extra profit at the expense of society at large. We need "clean air act" level legislation to fix it. We've actively done the opposite.


> "DRM... [is] like toxic waste."

Yes! The depleted plutonium of technical debt.


ITYM depleted uranium, used in armor-piercing rounds for its very high density. While "depleted plutonium" is a thing, it's not generally used in any way that I'm aware:

http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae576.cfm


I'd love to buy you a beer and learn a few things if you're in the Bay Area. My email is hi [at] josh.ml.


What's the economic model? Supporting systems no one else will with clients that can't migrate to some other system?


The model is simple. Tons (quite literally) of steel have been rendered useless by ounces of failed silicon. The OEM's are unable or unwilling to provide replacements insisting that all that steel must be torn out and replaced in order to get the "updated" program for which they demand 100's of $k's or even millions plus "integration costs" etc.

Usually a $300 off the shelf PLC and a little patience will have them back up in no time. Sometimes it gets really hairy and I have to make little protocol converters with a custom PCB and a little code on a micro. Its almost all from the 80's and 90's. Its not rocket science by any stretch. Its more like plumbing (except in this case, the builder is telling you that when the sink clogs, you need a new house because they don't make that faucet anymore).

I mostly do fixed assets (old production plants and such) but it works for tractors, boats, earthmovers, and other vehicles as well.


I used to work for a company that made "copies" of PCB's from industrial machines.

Most industrial equipment costs hundreds of thousands euros, most of them have a lifespan of >10 years, but the manufacturer usually stops supporting them, or goes out of business before the machines do.

Many of these machines suffer from failing electronics, and repairing or even completely re-engineering the electronics is usually cheaper than installing a complete new machine.

Problem is, like noonespecial already wrote: 90% of the equipment has 'DRM'. Or it has no documentation or the manufacturer simply refuses to give details about it's inner workings due to "intellectual property". (note: that's the same manufacturer that refuses to repair their customer's failed $500k machine)

edit: minor typo


I'm working for a precision ag company that has done work reverse engineering hydraulic systems, as well as building variable rate tech. I'd be keen to have a chat, if your interested in discussing your experiences. fanquake @ google mail


At the same time, the cost of breaking them decreases with time.

See how any DRM of old software is more easily breakable today than at that time.

(Still is a pain, though)


The other issue I think will be longevity. I grew up on a farm, and every piece of machinery that we used was older then I was by about 10 years, at least. Farmer's expect to purchase a tractor, and then run that piece of equipment for the entire life of the FARMER.

It feels like the tractor manufactures today are catering to the mega farms, not the smaller farms that make up a larger portion of our farming infrastructure. And the small farms only buy a new tractor every 10 - 20 years. Not every 3 - 5 years for a tax break.


That is the great thing about that old equipment, especially the really mass-produced models. Everything is mechanical, and most of it is built out of heavy duty steel, so between wire, duct tape, a stick welder, and a hammer, you can fix 90% of breakages. If something goes that isn't that easy, there are after-market manufacturers, or you can take something that isn't quite the right part and modify it to work, or find a salvage job on craigslist to scrounge from pretty easily.

I've got a John Deere M that is nearly 75 years old and still gets the job done.


A lot of my grand dad's implements were from the 50's - 70's. I never knew him to take any of them anywhere to be fixed. He could to it all with a relatively small collection of tools.

Heck, when a tread linkage broke on his D9 Caterpillar we managed to get a new one and get it installed right in the field.


That second comment nails it. Family farms are going the way of the dinosaur, and large outfits want a machine they can use for three seasons, depreciate and eliminate for both a tax write-off and upgrade.

I legitimately believe we'll see the death of true family farms in my lifetime (I'm in my 30's). What we'll see are family farms in name only, with a multi-million dollar, multi-national backend.


Why would you spend $100k on a tractor every 3 years to get a $30k discount on taxes?


Because in the US, a tractor is considered an tool, and thus the farmers/farms get a 100% write off of the entire purchase price.


A tax credit is not the same thing as a deduction (write off). A credit goes dollar-for-dollar against taxes owed. A deduction reduces the amount to which the tax percentage is applied.


The used market is pretty good.


But you need to declare the sale as capital gains.

I also don't understand this argument. I use computers for my business. It makes it cheaper to get one for business than for personal use, but I'd still like the things to last as long as possible.


A PC is different because there isn't much correlation between age and operating costs.

With something like a server, as long as you can deploy them quickly, you actually can reduce costs by replacing them in step with the Intel tick/tock cadence.


Only for as long as the DRM key-holders allow it to be


I suspect they run the used asset (say worth $70k) through some sleight of hand with subsidiaries or leasing agents to avoid the depreciation recapture tax of selling it for its true worth. Voila, free tractor.


I worked in BigAg in the panhandle for a bit, and I agree and lament this fact.

What gets me the most is that all the politicians and people like to imagine the self sufficient farming community as it used to be and then run on platforms claiming to support it, when in reality what they are supporting is the megacorp farming industry which is quickly forcing family run operations into selling out in one way or another, whether it be via huge debt on equipment or on corporate governed coop. Don't even get me started on Monsanto... or the oft cited scientific studies that secretly have huge biases (follow the funding).

I quit the industry because of these practices, if that makes anyone feel any better. Actually it was a funny story because everyone loved the millionaire owner who "always took care of everyone". I never liked him and knew some things about the origins of his money no-one else did that influenced my decision to leave, and a year after I left he fired half the staff and sold all the branch locations.

Working with the geneticists there did open the door for my working in a cutting edge DNA lab though, so it wasn't all bad.


I don't know the breakdown of farms in the US but in Canada "family farms" supppsedly make up 98% of all farms. This includes mega farms that are owned by families

Source: industry published reading material at a farming AGM


I don't think the parent meant 'mega farms that are owned by families' to be the same thing as 'family farms'.


but they are pretty much the same. One of my uncles(by marriage) runs a multi-million dollar farm with his brother. They started it from nothing about twenty years ago and now they grow millions a year in crops. This isn't some giant mega corp, this is two guys who have grown their business. Banks are thrilled to loan my uncle money to get more land, equipment, etc because he has a proven track record of turning loans into profits and returning their money.

Sure its just anecdote, but based purely on personal experience i feel like the family farms that go out of business are because they are not any good at business. The farms that are good at business just get bigger.


A "multi-million dollar farm" is also known as a farm. People who grow crops on 10 acres of land are basically doing it as a hobby. The dividing line isn't between farms that have $500,000 in revenue vs. $5,000,000 in revenue, it's between "family" farms that have ~$5,000,000 in revenue and farm companies that have $5,000,000,000+ in revenue.


Like many statistics, that number can mean what you want it to mean. I would venture to guess that the percentage of food grown on family farms, vs mega farms, is under 10%.


> the smaller farms that make up a larger portion of our farming infrastructure

Really? Do you have a citation for this?

All the data I have seen says that small farmers are basically nil in terms of production, profitability, and land area relative to the big mega farms.


"In 2011, 96 percent of U.S. crop farms were family farms, and they accounted for 87 percent of the value of crop production."

http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1156726/err152.pdf

And since the devil's in the definitions:

"ERS defines a family farm to be one in which the principal operator, and people related to the principal operator by blood or marriage, own more than half of the farm business"

So I think that's valid.


4% of crop land is outside of family farms any they produced 13% of crop value? That suggests family farms on average suck.

However the definition of "family farm" tends to get stretched a lot. 50,000+ accre "Family Farms" are hardly what most people think of as family farms.

Eighty-three percent of cropland was on farms that were larger than the mean size, and 71 percent was on farms that were more than twice (1,100 being the meadean).

Also of note, a lot of "Farms" are really only farms in name only. Hay production for example qualifies even if you outsource harvesting to someone else. Happen to own a large field well it's easy to make some money on the side even if someone else does all the work and it barely covers taxes.


>4% of crop land is outside of family farms any they produced 13% of crop value? That suggests family farms on average suck.

No, it means the distribution of crops isn't the same, which isn't surprising. Perhaps corporate farms are more likely to produce profitable crops like vegetables or fruit or something.


The PDF you linked is about how farms are much larger now. The family thing is what you responded to, but the actual pdf does state that small farms have gone or are going away.

The previous comments were about small family farms, not just 'family' farms.


Yeah, you're right, I got caught up in the "operator" language, thought it meant more direct management. I couldn't find any place that did something like cumulative acreage by size that you see with income, i.e. top 5% of farms have half the land.


Definitions are everything here - what are considered "smaller farms?" - My cousin in Alberta, her husband, and two kids with occasional contract help farms two sections (1280 acres) of various crops - and his role in the harvest/planter (outside of parking, which is epic when he has a full set of fertilizing tanks connected) seems to be predominantly supervisory - GPS and software-defined systems do most of the actual work now. He even has a mini-fridge in his Air-Conditioned Cab.

Would we consider that to be a smaller farm?


From your reference, while there are a ton of small farms (median size 45 acres), the vast majority of cropland is on large farms.

Even if I concede less than 100 acres as a "small farm" (and 100 acres is almost twice the median farm size), that represents almost 66.4% of the total number of farms yet only 8.4% of total production.

Small farms are not a rounding error, but they sure are headed that direction.


"Family farm" includes large family-owned businesses. Given that some of the largest businesses in the US are privately (largely family)-held, that's a pretty meaningless distinction. Koch Industries, Cargill, and the SAS Institute all come to mind.

Forbes has a list of the top 20: http://www.forbes.com/lists/2011/21/private-companies-11_lan...

Far better to classify total land holdings by farm size.


Census has reports about that stuff:

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/agriculture/farm...

827 is instructive:

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0827.p...

More than 1/3 of harvested acres come from farms larger than 2000 acres (of which there are ~80).

Farms larger than 500 acres account for roughly another 1/3 of harvested acres.

Of the remainder, about half of acreage is harvested on farms larger than 260 acres.

There are some huge land holders in that top category (the mean harvested acres is 1.5 million, the mean land ownership is ~4x that).


In some places in the US & Canada, 2000 acres is a pretty small farm. I know a guy in Saskatchewan who farms 1600 acres and holds a full time off-farm job as well.

I also know of a family ranch in Saskatchewan that's about 30,000 acres. It's run by a husband, wife and two hired hands.


The report I linked distinguishes between acres and harvested acres, except for the 4x, I'm quoting the harvested acres. So I think graze land and such is not going to show up in those numbers.

I made a stupid mistake, there are 80,000 large farms, not 80. Damn it. At least that makes a lot more sense.


Excellent, thanks.


But Cargill and Koch wouldn't be included in the 96% because the owners aren't the 'principal operator'.


My point wasn't that these are farms, but that "family owned" is a pretty useless descriptor to indicate scale.


I'm also a farm kid. I think the problem is defining what is a small farm vs a large farm. And that definition will change depending one what part of the country you are in. A small dairy by me is anything less than 1000 milking head of cows. A small farm is less than 1500 acres (5000 acres is common). In a different region, 300 milking head is large, so is 500 acres of farm ground.


5,000 acres is common? Are there family farms that are that large, or are those corporate farms. I've never heard of a family farm that was 8 sections large - so presumably these are corporate farms?


My grandparents own 5000 acres, of which they used to farm around 3000 acres of that actively. And we managed all of that with my grandfather, a hired hand, and myself in the summer, and just my grandfather and the hired hand during the winter. We did a 2000 acre wheat harvest, and 4 cuttings of hay at a 1000 acres a cutting in the summer from June through September.

I worked 12 hour days during the summer from the time I was 12 until I was 17.


>And we managed all of that with my grandfather, a hired hand, and myself in the summer, and just my grandfather and the hired hand during the winter.

well, i see one more time how USSR planned collective economy sucked compare to the US farming - a USSR collective farm of 10-20K acres would contain 200-300 households with most working age people of the households employed at the farm.


Then you understand nothing of how URSS actually worked. They didn't "employed" 300 people because they were needed, they did so to keep everyone busy. The head of a "colhoz" (I think that would roughly translate to "farm"), sometimes had to make up stuff, just keep people busy, and write the hours on paper.


>Then you understand nothing of how URSS actually worked.

i was born in 72 in USSR. Roughly half my family, like grandmother & grandfather, 2 uncles and an aunt lived in a "kolhoz" and "sovhoz" near by. We visited frequently and i spent some summers there. I also worked at a "sovhoz" the summer after 6th grade. There wasn't making up of the stuff. There were a lot of inefficiencies, low productivity - manual labor instead of machines - and bad organization - typical slice of USSR economy.


>I worked 12 hour days during the summer from the time I was 12 until I was 17.

Wow, honestly just reading that just blew my mind. Do you think that made you a better person or helped you at all down the road? That is a ton of manual labor for anyone, especially a child.

I know that this used to be common practice back before the industrial revolution but I guess I never really thought about it, or heard of anyone who actually went through something like that.

Serious question, no disrespect meant.


I feel that it did help me. I have a work ethic that is not really found in a lot of people even at my age(30). I still love to work outside, and enjoy a good hard days labor. It has allowed me to get ahead in the IT field because I am willing to work 12 - 16 hour days, without even blinking, because to be honest, a 16 hour day in a really comfortable chair with music is pretty easy compared to a 12 hour day of bucking hale bales when it is 100F outside.

And to be honest I don't feel that it in anyway hurt nor hindered me either. I grew up just as healthy, and probably stronger then most of my peers. And still don't feel that I was abused in anyway, not to mention all through highschool I was making 2 - 3k a year in income because of that work.


Not the GP but I did the same. Longer hours sometimes - make hay while the sun shines and all that (where I grew up in NZ we have a good 14 hours of sun to make the most of). I was on the market gardens, so planting, hoeing, picking, shifting irrigation pipes around etc. In the winter every Sunday was a 7:30am start picking cauliflower. When you grow up in that environment, it's just normal.

Though, it's really not uncommon. I picked apples for a season and most people worked all the hours they possibly could, because they had to (me included).

An interesting moment of mis-calibration that I'll never forget; At one point I was picking apples near the roadside and a man driving by stopped to ask me a question. He said, "How much do they pay you?" to which I replied $15. And he said, "For one of those?" pointing to the bag around my neck [0]. Slightly astounded I replied, "No, for one of those!" pointing to the large wooden bin on the ground [1].

It's a moment that will stick with me forever as a stark realisation that most people are totally disconnected from the manual labour that goes into the production of the things they consume every day (I know that applies to a lot more that just fruit and veg, and we're all guilty of it). I remember thinking at the time how unjust it was that once I made enough money to travel back to the city, I'd be earning a magnitude more sitting in an office in front of a computer.

I think if nothing else you develop a strong work ethic. Probably to a fault; over the years I've had to learn not to look so critically on those that don't put in as much work as I do. At the same time, I notice and admire those that have the same work ethic as me.

All in all I think it's a positive experience that's helped me along the way to be good at what I do now (tech startup). I think it's become part of my core character and I feel a certain sense of pride at how hard I worked when I was younger (and still do).

[0] http://cmsimg.delawareonline.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=B...

[1] http://www.applebarn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/IMAG1310...


FWIW, in NSW Australia, the average land size of farms is just over 3,300ha.

Heavens knows the average size in Australia - the biggest station is 2,366,700ha. I guess it probably needs to be defined by the sort of farming being done.


By farming, I'm referring to land which is planted/harvested, typically row crops like Wheat, Corn (maize), or hay (alfalfa). From doing a bit of reading on things like http://talk.newagtalk.com/forums/thread-view.asp?tid=5707&Di..., I'm guessing the practical limit is the speed/capability of a combine, and the length of the harvest season. It sounds like 100 acres/day is a limit, and harvest season can (typically) stretch from mid-september to end of october - or around 45 days. So, full out, presuming you use your own equipment, the largest "family" farm that can sustain a single annual harvest would be around 4500 acres.


Would owning multiple combines disqualify you from being considered a "family farm"?


Also - can you be considered a family farm if you don't own a combine, but instead hire the services of one/several?


I worked on a farm in high school in the 90s... They were a dairy and hay operation. The "new" tractor that ran the bakers and equipment was a 1950s Ford. They had serial ancient Farmalls from the 1930s that hauled wagons and pulled rakes. I don't recall ever having a serious breakdown.


Used to be the attitude about many things before the consumer oriented marketing set in to keep the factory churn going.


I feel the same way about new automobiles. I look at a new car and I think "I wonder how many Computers, and Emission sensors that vechicle has?". "Will it be a pain in the ass to work on?" (Don't get me wrong I like Emission standards, and performance, but engineers have gone Overboard!)

Repair is not as simple as hooking up a scanner to the ALDL and replacing the faulty part. I had a newish Dodge truck that had that was stalling(periodically). It was actually owned and loved by a 70 plus relative, and loved this particular truck. I went to automotive school, so I have always worked on the family vechicles. Well I checked the truck's computers with two different scanners--no faults. I checked individual components with a DVOM--in spec's. Took it to the Dealer--they couldn't find anything wrong. Well it got worse over the years, and owner decided to bring it to another Dealer, after doing all my on diagnostics again. I thought they might find the one sensor I missed. Well this is what they did; They literally replaced every sensor near, or within a few feet of the Throttle Body---still didn't quite work, so they reflashed the computer--runs, but idles too high. They charged family member close to 3 grand. So the only autos I actually get excited about are pre 1972, and I don't feel good about it because they pollute.(exception--certain small engine cars like Toyota's from any year). While I'm on it--Motor Emission manuals are filled with errors. If your car fails smog, especially the visual, take it to a shop that has access to Online5(Mitchell manuals).

And No--1988 toyoya trucks(naturally aspirated) trucks were not required to have a MIL light. The editors at Motor Publications didn't know the difference between naturally aspirated, and FI. I was beyond shocked!

Moral of story--practical use of technology--fine. Three computers, 5 02 sensors, literally a sensor wire going to coffee cup holder--Fuffing Rediculious. (I have never seen a sensor to coffee cup, but I wouldn't put it past them)


What sort of machinery did farmers use "back then." (not sure how old you are)

I ask, because some of these mega-tractors have a lot of functionality (more complexity seems to just cause more points of failure), but you can still buy a good old general purpose tractor that will last a lot longer.

*not a farmer, but really into homesteading and getting a small self sustaining farm going at some point.


It's all about function and simplicity. Take a Massey Ferguson 1100 (1964 - 1972) or 175 (1964 - 1975). You could tear them down to the frame with two hammers, a good (big) wrench set and enough time. I have, and do. I currently run one of each, today, as work machines.

Now, everything is computerized and requires a degree in electrical engineering to figure out. That's not me being a Luddite wishing for better days, it's a fact.

I can fix mechanical breakdowns in the field, no matter how complicated. Those machines are simple to maintain, cheap to run, and are unbelievably reliable. The process to diagnose and solve issues is as simple as finding the part that is cracked or fell off.

My neighbor has a John Deer 5E something or other utility tractor. Same horsepower as the 1100, and smaller, which is nice. BUT, we can't fix a fried circuit on the throttle control - hell, we're lucky to find it without needing to call out the implement dealer.

It's that; simplicity. Those mega-tractors and all of the new bells and whistles are great for corporations and large-outfits who can afford to have a machine down for three weeks while you wait for diagnosis and repair.


>Now, everything is computerized and requires a degree in electrical engineering to figure out.

Let's be clear here. It requires no such thing. What's required is a technician and a CAN bus reader with the appropriate (proprietary) message decoders. A EE with too much time on his hands is a reasonable substitute for that. This crap is hard to fix because the manufacturers made it that way. They made it that way so they can soak you for more money when things break.


The problem is that if you make your stuff easy to fix, it's also easy to reverse engineer. What can I do against the Chinese guy who sells 1000 of my designs a month against my 20, because his labor costs are one tenth? Blow up his factory? I certainly can't sue and expect it to go anywhere...


>What can I do

You can make better quality stuff. Keeping the messaging protocol a secret hurts customers more than it helps you.


If that was true people would be only buying $20 US-made Tshirts of good quality,not $5 Chinese ones that fall apart. It's a nice dream that the market decides what's best, but in practice it simply doesn't work.


I'll not pretend to be a business genius, but I don't think your analogy is applicable in the farm machinery analytics business. I don't even think it ever will be commoditized to the degree that t-shirts are.


I agree with you in principle, but - quality propagates slowly (you have to build up a reputation for it, etc.) and price propagates quickly, it's right there to see next to the "order" button.


As a guy who owns 2 tractors and an excavator, and as a software guy who has faced the same problem, you have my sympathy.

I think the answer is quality. All my equipment is Kubota, they make good stuff, if you keep on the filters and fluids they will outlive your kids.

I never seriously considered chinese tractors. I looked at them, they are cheaper for sure, but you are pretty much on your own if they break, there isn't the dealer network like there is for Kubota or Deere.

I'd much rather have a used Kubota than a brand new whatever with yanmar engine in it. My mechanic, who has 40 years of fixing tractors in the San Joaquin valley under his built, claims he has never had to full rebuild on a Kubota. He loves that chinese stuff though, keeps him busy :)


I agree with everything here except the bit about Yanmar. I like Yanmar engines; John Deere even uses them on some of their small tractors and commercial mowers. Don't know much about actual Yanmar produced tractors, but I suspect they may have got a bad rep due to their lack of US dealer network, or maybe racism/nationalism.


...CAN bus reader...

Hahaha we finally got rid of our Case JX100U last year. There was always a strain sensor or whatever going out on that thing, but you could usually figure out which one it was by counting how many times a LED blinked. (I.e. three blinks followed by six blinks would be error code 36.)


"... It's all about function and simplicity. ... Those machines are simple to maintain, cheap to run, and are unbelievably reliable. ..."

Spent my childhood with tractors and machinery and gotta agree. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/8670866219

Used tractors to clear and pull down trees, slash and move things about. Small plot, nothing large scale but the machines (eg: Fordson - built in Dagenham, England b/w 1948 and 1952) were cheap, reliable and totally fixable. Fire put an end to these beasts. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/3449252693/in/photost...

Miss them a lot.

Examples: (really old 165 diesel)

* replace a wrecked PTO https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/5362091356 and replacing it with a new one https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/5362074220

* tools required to change PTO https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/5362091360

* job done https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/8479859739

* hack battery system to recharge by sun https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/8479859639

Did stuff with tools around the shed to fix machines that allows you to do things absolutely could not do by hand.


So how much of a factor is this during the purchase process? If someone entered the market and sold simple reliable tools as a price that could sustain their business without resorting to DRM'd circuits to apparently fleece you on the repair costs later... would you select the DRM-free good over the locked down John Deere?

Because I think if the answer is yes then the market will correct this soon enough and we can all start shorting DE. If for some reason you're happy to keep buying Deere, then perhaps this isn't quite the problem it's made out to be.

My theory would be that to the extent that DRM adds cost without benefits, non-DRM products gain a competitive advantage, can charge higher prices, and can out-compete. Note this doesn't work if they are monopolies or cartels...


I once got to walk through the engine and gearbox(?) workshop/factory at Maasey Ferguson in the UK. It was like nothing else. Row on row of machinery, which at the time stood still. A haze of machine oil through the factory so you could not see the far wall. It was like being on a set in the movie Brazil.


>> Those mega-tractors and all of the new bells and whistles are great for corporations and large-outfits who can afford to have a machine down for three weeks while you wait for diagnosis and repair.

The way it works is, that when you buy large number of tractors you sign a contract with John Deere, and in the contract is says that every time the tractor breaks down they HAVE to fix it within 48 hours(or provide a different one), otherwise they have to pay fines as a result from you lacking tools to do your job. It's a common technique in many different industries.


Open Source Ecology is interesting in this context. It is less about ecology and more about open source hardware, including farming machinery.

http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Agriculture


I have a professor who worked there for 6 months. He said it was one of the most unorganized positions he's worked at. There's no focus, and during the media blitz from TED, he got way too much money, and didn't know how to spend it effectively.


I've been following OSE casually for several years - it was an intriguing proposition. The online presence gives the impression that it has collapsed. I think Marcin has squandered the energy and we'll not be seeing anything more from it.

A disheartening article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-civilizatio...


If you're interested in heavy equipment we will be hiring for a full-time developer position(s) soon. Shoot me an email regardless and I'd love to chat: josh [at] dirtjockey.com.


What's up with the tax breaks everywhere? Guh...


Wired (and iFixit) are getting activist about DMCA exceptions. This is great. A couple weeks ago Kyle Weins wrote[1]:

"No one has yet been prosecuted for hacking their own car, but they could. And as locks become more prevalent, the EFF and iFixit are willing to bet that, eventually, some carmaker will bring the DMCA hammer down on a hobbyist's head. So we're are taking a stand now."

"Want to speak out in support of this DMCA exemption? Tell the Copyright Office that car owners should be able to repair and modify their own automobiles. You've got until February 6 to make your voice heard."

HN discussed that article too.[2]

[1] http://www.wired.com/2015/01/let-us-hack-our-cars/

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8936382


This is just the sort of issue that inspires open-source hardware movements like the one that produced this: http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Lifetrac

The most recent iteration is no match for the big commercial farm equipment, but it does have the notable advantage that being able to build it yourself necessarily means that you can diagnose its problems and repair it on the same terms.


https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9007036

Not the first time I heard that comment...


Really sad to hear that the project has gone down the tubes. It was one of the most exciting open source hardware projects I've ever seen. I think something like this is vital, and I hope that someone is able to pick up where OSE left off.


Which is why I used the weasel words. The OSE project was probably a little too far-reaching and thinly supported to ever be successful at making a holy GECK. But as a build-your-own-Bobcat project, look at how far they got!


Open source movements, particularly in hardware, are difficult. No reason to abandon all hope. Though deciding between doubling down on OSE or launching a new effort is something to come to grips with.


Modern EPA requirements mean that it is impossible to design a compliant off highway commercial vehicle without relying on advanced electronic process controls. Your grandfather's tractor might be repairable with baling wire, but it also releases a ton more diesel particulates.

http://www.deere.com/en_US/ProductCatalog/FR/media/pdf/8r_se...

There's no incentive for companies to publish information on their vehicle bus interfaces, since it would basically give away trade secrets to competitors.


The ironic thing is that failing to publish schematics and bus interfaces is nothing more than a temporary inconvenience to competitors, especially (but not limited to) the Chinese. They cloned a whole goddamn Apple store, they can clone your tractor. That's what they do.

It does, however, encourage planned obsolescence by keeping you from maintaining your own out-of-warranty farm equipment.


The FBI was compromised for decades for under a quarter million dollars. It seems unbelievable to think that obfuscating the final delivered product is going to prevent serious competitors. It's not like selling $100K+ tractors only requires a website. It's as stupid as Nikon "encrypting" the white balance info in their raw files, requiring their client to get the data out. Did nothing but hurt customers, and make a few extra sales of their shoddy software.

It's highly suspect to think such obfuscation is anything but a way to extract more money and exert more control over customers.


Not right now, but from 2018 manufacturers selling in Europe will have to provide information and tools to independent mechanics.

http://cema-agri.org/publication/access-vehicle-repair-maint...


It sounds like there is a market for either a. Tractors with very limited electronics, but easily repairable, or b. Hi-tech tractors that are completely open systems.

What you have here is an industry ripe for disruption. John Deere makes enormous amounts of money on farm capital expenditure but also operational expenditure. But their service is crap (two days for a sensor to be fitted? Someone tell the weather not to rain or disrupt harvest, John Deere's equipment needs time to be repaired!).

In a market economy, one would think that someone would see an opportunity and, you know, compete.


Um, exactly what is your annual market for tractors when the average tractor is 10 years old?

Call it 20,000 tractors? Now, how much of that market are you going to pick off? And can you make a business of it?

This lack of volume is exactly why A) the companies are locking things down and B) the service calls take too much time. I'd bet that practically ALL the service calls occur right before spring planting and right before fall harvest. Thus, your service people are incredibly busy exactly twice a year and totally idle the rest.

(My estimations look about right: http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/machinery/machinery-news... "John Deere has retained its tractor market share of about 30 per cent in 2010, putting it top of the table again with 4,427 units sold."


This is also a case that pits different parts of the agricultural industry against each other. DRM might be great for the equipment manufacturer, but only if it doesn't hurt farmers interest in modern equipment.

Monsanto sells something they call FieldScripts: Based on weather databases, detailed soil information and topography, a big computer cluster calculates what should be the most profitable seeds that the company sells for each small patch of ground, and what seed density to use. Sometimes an area needs less density, or a seed that works better in wetter conditions, or a bunch of other little factors.

Well, to follow a script like that is not something you can do by hand, as it's way too much work. What you need to even use them is a machine that is modern enough that it can hold multiple different kinds of seed, and can be programmed to change what it's planting, and how it's planting it, as it goes. So you can't even do this with most traditional machines.

So if farmers do not want to buy those machines because of DRM issues, then Monsanto can either bin their product, as few people would ever use it, or use their lobbying pressure towards open standards in agricultural software and hardware, all while trying to keep seed technology as protected as the mouse's big round ears. It'd be pretty funny, if you ask me.


In reality giants like John Deere have such chokeholds on the market that they can either buy out "disrupters" or bankrupt them.

Hardware is so costly and slow moving compared to software that the swiftness of startups compared to incumbents isn't enough.

Tesla for example is basically a charity project where the automotive industry is being given the technology in order to encourage them to adopt it. If Tesla was being run for purely economical purposes the incumbents would have moved to buy it or crush it.


Allow me to play devil's advocate here. I used to work for a company that produces measurement equipment for professional technicians. It's big, complicated, dangerous, and expensive equipment that is comparable in cost to the tractors discussed in this article. The products employ a number of measures to prevent end-users from tampering with things that shouldn't be tampered with (especially the firmware). Partly this is to discourage piracy. But mainly this is done because the equipment is quite complicated and there are not many people in the world who understand the technology well enough to make repairs on their own. It's very easy to cause unintentional errors that can cause much more serious damage than the original minor problem. And when the failure of your equipment can cause serious property damage, injury, or death are you going to make it easy for people to modify your product's firmware?


Considering literally anything can be used to harm, kill, or maim (I actually have a friend who was severely injured by a pineapple) if used incorrectly, I say it's better to have open-source knowledge so we learn how to properly use something rather than sit in proprietary ignorance and hope nothing bad happens.

Besides, knives, cars, guns, indoor plumbing, house wiring, etc., are all just as if not more dangerous than farming equipment. Just slap a good ol' MIT license agreement somewhere on your product so that it's clear to the user "if you do X, you void the warranty and you're solely responsible for whatever damage you might cause."


Make it open. Then add warnings and void the warranty. If someone has a legitimate need to modify it they should be able. If it's that dangerous one would hope the care used in operating goes goes tenfold for any modifications.

If it is big and complicated, your users probably don't want to modify it for fear of causing damage. If they do, the risk is on them. If someone wants to modify it they will. Wouldn't you rather they have all the information rather than trying to obscure it?


You are assuming that users are making rational assessments of both their skill level and also of the difficulty of the modifications they are seeking to perform. Often the most overly optimistic people are some of the most unskilled. I dealt with these folks for years and unfortunately there are many scenarios when you just have to protect the user from himself for his own good. And no, slapping a "changing firmware voids the warranty" clause to the product sale will not protect you from legal liability when the users hacks your system and loses an arm. There are many real-world scenarios where the Silicon Valley motto of "fail fast, fail often" is just not acceptable.


>But mainly this is done because the equipment is quite complicated

Magic!

>And when the failure of your equipment can cause serious property damage, injury, or death are you going to make it easy for people to modify your product's firmware?

Yes. Everyone has a disclaimer "not to be used on life-support systems, you're responsible when you screw the pooch".

>are you going to make it easy for people to modify your product's firmware?

It's not always about customizing someone's OEM product; sometimes it's about getting two pieces of equipment to work together.

ie: John Deere tractor + implement that John Deere doesn't even make, or customized implement, or even, customized JD tractor for a special purpose.


There are alternatives to making your machine unmaintainable (which has it's own risks) after your company goes bust, like monitoring it and adequately documenting it.

Repair-ability is often underestimated. SMT was going to be the end of repairable electronics, for example.


Provide the entirety of the source for free yet lock down the machine from modifications. If the user wants to modify their machine they can contact you for an unlock code at the cost of their warranty.


I was under the impression that farms increasingly rely on the "Tractor as a Service" business model, i.e. they pay someone who has a fleet of the latest tractors (incl operators) to harvest their fields etc.


That's for the massive farms in the Midwest growing corn and wheat.


This sounds like the same experience people have with their out-of-warranty german cars. Either take it to the stealership or buy diagnostic system made by non-VW guys. Even if you have the diagnostic system to read codes from ECU, you are left wih testing many sensors: whether the sensor needs to be replaced or cleaned. But one has to know the details of resistance etc to test the said sensor.

And these sensors are not cheap. They cost more than a tire!!


I actually find new electronic automotive systems to be easier than the "old way" (tracing wires, probing with a multimeter, etc.): oftentimes the issue will have diagnosed itself, and, if not, the ECU diagnostic tool will have an actual value display and a list of actuators you can hit to see if the sensor responds appropriately. I've never seen a sensor that's more than about $150, but I'm sure they're out there.

The frustrating part (which is indeed common to German cars and high-end tractors) is that the diagnostic systems are all loaded with unnecessary and ridiculous manufacturer protectionism. You can't even clear the "Change Oil" light on a new Porsche without a Porsche diagnostic system or the reverse-engineered clone tool (Durametric). And even once you've found a broken sensor or component, it's often pointlessly "coded" (its serial number written into an EEPROM) such that the factory diagnostics tool needs to bless its replacement.


"But under modern copyright laws, that kind of “repairing” is legally questionable."

Questionable? If it becomes politically unpopular enough, they will certainly jail people for it. It's explicitly illegal but those laws are not evenly enforced. They seem to acknowledge the DMCA but then fall back to the "questionable" position saying it's "entirely possible" the farmer becomes a criminal. This is video game console modding, they are even using pirated proprietary software.

INAL, am I misunderstanding the state of things? Is there some reason, besides the political weakness created by going after farmers, that this is "questionable"?


What's built not to be repaired, is bad value for money.


I read it as "repaired by the blessed people and parts".

What I don't understand is, if this sensor fails so often, why doesn't the farmer keep one in stock. That he's willing to have the machine idle for 2 days to get it suggests this isn't a really big problem for him.


> What I don't understand is, if this sensor fails so often, why doesn't the farmer keep one in stock.

Probably because it's impossible as JD as only vendor only sells the part to authorized service shops, with contracts forbidding sale to individual customers (edit: and the sensor is likely patented too, to prevent clones, like Apple did with Magsafe).

Or worse, each sensor/component has a UUID and registers with the ECU over the communication bus... and to allow the sensor to be used with the ECU, it has to be authorized with a key provided only to authorized service shops.


I would assume the same consumer protection laws that mandate the sale of automotive parts also covers farm equipment.

The issue is that the OBD standards have a mode for restricting access (0x27) until the test equipment has passed a challenge-response phase. The exact method varies but it is often a fairly simple scheme such as multiplying a secret key by a random value and returning part of the product for the ECU to confirm. The keys can be discovered by reverse engineering firmware or capturing enough initialization packets to work out the system. One of my ECUs from a defunct manufacturer has the ever original 0x6789 as its key.


Ha, wow, the first time I've ever been genuinely taken aback by 'victim blaming' and of all possible places it comes from a story about a farmer and his tractor.

For starters, even the text of the article shows that he's reliant on the technician to replace the part, and it doesn't break down what of the 2 days is ordering the part vs scheduling the technician's time. It may be that even with the part in hand it's 2 days for an opening in the tech's schedule.

Further, while the article makes it sound as if there is one part repeatedly failing, the reality is that there are dozens of different sensors, and maybe only one fails per year. Your proposed solution might require the farmer to have thousands of dollars in spare parts sitting around at all times so he has replacements ready for all of them. Modern ag is already a capital intensive operation without forcing every family farm to double as a parts warehouse.


Yeah, well, my parents grew up on farms and starting in 3rd grade our property was sort of one, it came with a hand crank starter. And "my" vehicle until I left for college was a 1967 Jeep, and all this was in a farming region to which I've also retired to. Where I now help my father repair his eminently repairable Grasshopper mowers. So I kinda expect farmers to do some of the basics about this sort of thing.

Going to the text I was working off:

"It takes a technician at least two days to order the part, get out to the farm, and swap out the sensor."

"Order the part" sure doesn't sound like a same day thing. Maybe this only shaves off one day on average. But I can't see how it doesn't shave off some time.

I grant you your last point; if this isn't a single lemon(ny) part prone to failure he's getting unacceptable service. And I predict this gambit will not end well for John Deere.


From the article, "Every time the sensor blew, the onboard computer would shut the tractor down. It takes a technician at least two days to order the part, get out to the farm, and swap out the sensor."

This is just a guess since that passage is vague, but it sounds to me like he isn't able to order the part himself. It might be a proprietary thing that only a (John Deere approved) tech can order. Either that, or maybe he isn't able to overcome some kind of anti-tampering hardware to install it himself.


A lot of German cars have "coded" sensors and modules, where the sensor's serial number is written into protected storage somewhere and a mismatch will disable functionality. In some cases it makes sense (for example, if special calibration data needs to accompany the sensor) but it's often implemented simply to make replacement require a factory technician. I wouldn't be surprised if Deere have gone the same route.


It also deters stealing a car and dismantling it for parts, which used to be a major issue... Not 100% consumer hostile.


Sounds like the sensor swap might need a firmware reset from the technician and their magic box.


wheres gnuTractor when you need it.

"But the crops are so ugly, and it took me 3 months to setup"

"but it was free!"


http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Tractor

As part of:

http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Global_Village_Constructio...

(I have no idea whether the stuff they are making is practical or not)


Haha, and, "i can't figure out the keybindings!"


In reply to the three who've replied up to now, I'm not suggesting the farmer do the repair work himself, and he could finesse putative prohibitions against him getting one by having his local dealership hold it for him.


Let me play devil's advocate here and suggest a few reasons why bypassing this "minor hydraulic sensor" might not be the smartest move.

1) Someone might get hurt.

2) Some really expensive part of the machine might get damaged.

It is within the realm of possibility that the engineers who designed this system knew what they were doing when they decided to shut down an entire machine when a single "minor hydraulic sensor" goes bad.


It's also entirely plausible that shutting down everything is the default behavior when a problem is detected. It's much simpler from an engineering standpoint, and safer for the manufacturer.


Farm boys have been taking their lives into their own hands since time began by fixing their own equipment. Somehow, I doubt that those (completely plausible) reasons are enough to justify curtailing a basic freedom of owning one's own capital.


As a web developer by trade, if I wanted to get involved in a project like this, having zero farming experience, where would I start?


Well, by the white-hat route, you would talk to a farmer for a long time, figure out the exact dimensions of the black box, and build a white box to replace it.

By the grey-hat route, you analyze the black box and patch out or bypass the security features in it. You allow the owner to jailbreak the hardware, while still largely using the original manufacturer software and firmware.

By the black-hat route, you illegally access manufacturer proprietary information and publish it, possibly along with statements indicating the exact extent to which the company profits by arbitrarily limiting the self-repair abilities of its customers. This would make it easier for the grey-hats to write jailbreak exploits and discourage farmers from buying in to the abusive business practices.

If you ever want to be paid for it, white-hat is the way to go. You have to look at how farmers currently use the technology and then figure out how to replicate those use cases without the use of closed technologies. Think about how Tomato or OpenWRT help people use their wireless routers in the way they desire. You would essentially be writing new firmware for a piece of hardware, albeit hardware that can cost the owner tens of thousands of dollars if used incorrectly.

Without knowing anything about tractors, I would guess that the modern ones include a digital hardware controller that can monitor and control every aspect of a diesel cycle engine. They may include GPS receivers and mapping and routing software. They would also include modules to control the interchangeable tools that may be mounted on the tractor, which would require sensor feedback.

By this time, they should be largely self-driving, and maybe even have their own Twitter accounts. I'd save that crap for last.


The gray hat and black hat approaches are actually fairly profitable in the automotive industry and could probably sell well in the farm industry too.

Gray-hat reverse-engineered tools like Durametric for Porsche and VAG-COM for VW sell with moderate degrees of success into the enthusiast and independent service shop market (where $800 for a Durametric with 40% of the capability is a lot more appealing than $14,000 + service plan for a PIWIS).

The black-hat approach seemingly can be profitable (like all black-hat pursuits, depending on your moral beliefs) as well: various Chinese manufacturers make enough money selling knockoff Mercedes diagnostic "multiplexers" on eBay to make it worth their while to produce them.

There are a ton of value-add products you can sell once you've reverse engineered a control system, too, like custom tuning and add-ons unavailable from the manufacturer.


...with the associated legal risk. If you start making too much money, you need to carefully structure your company to be raid-proof and judgment-proof. Make daily off-site, offshore backups. Don't ever do sales and manufacturing in the same country. Put your supply chain in a different business structure than your customer management, which is likewise separate from your reverse engineering operation. Use strawman purchasers to acquire your OEM hardware for analysis.

All that represents overhead costs. If you don't pay them, your company could potentially be eaten by lawyers.

Only white-hats can sleep soundly at night. (They would be naive to do so, but they do have that option.) They are also the only ones able to accept an over-the-table buyout offer.

That said, the grey-hat route is probably the most fun, and likely to attract people from the "because its there" crowd. Judging from the jailbreakers in the console and mobile markets, they might just do it just to kick a multinational in the nuts and run away, laughing.


Iowa


We are working in the used heavy equipment industry and will be working on these particular problems soon. Shoot me an email at josh [at] dirtjockey.com.


Not being able to fix things yourself is bad for the environment. Things that you use and throw is by design bad. DRM also means not being able to improve on the product created by the corporate entity.

As hackers we need to be able to tinker and repair the things we have bought. Components that we by need to be recycled. Your old cell phone and laptop needs to be converted to a new one not thrown on the junk yard as trash or end up at tash dumps in Africa or China.


This is the classic, unfortunate reality - the disconnect between what is legal and what is right. Yes, the companies are well within their rights to restrict access to the internals of products they sell. But by doing that, they are just being total assholes. In this case we have companies literally providing negative value (relative to older, non-DRMed equipment) and charging more.


Its designed to protect the income revenue stream of farm implements dealer at expense of the farmer whether they are single or a corporation.


The problem is the pervasiveness of our new business models that depend on perpetual dependence and licensing. It is rather ironic that in the country most obnoxious about freedom and personal property, we never really own anything; we are a culture that has been groomed on dependence on the corporate matrix.


The same issue exists, on a larger scale, for cars. Manufacturers have a motivation to lock you into dealer maintenance and DRM on the electronics is a great tool for this. We need to be the ones to educate consumers that its good when thing are hackable.


Not easy of course, but how about throwing out the computer, keeping the chassis and engine, and controlling it by another, open source, computer.

Would that be legal circumvention of the DRM?




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: