Innovation, the word, has many definitions. Let's go with "the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which customers will pay."
The most recent innovations that our industry has adopted would seem to be GPS, geo-mapping, business management software, smartphones and other employee and customer-contact technologies. And, arguably - for visibility and marketing - perhaps social media. That's not to equate the importance of Twitter, at least in the landscape business, with the development of the zero-turn mower - not even close.
Click photo to enlarge.
Bobcat's Matt Kaldor, left, ready to instruct Turf's Ron Hall, red pullover, on running a ToolCat.
In fact, in terms of equipment, it's been a generation since we've had a bombshell breakthrough, something to make us stop and say, "Darn, I gotta have that!" The appearance of mini construction equipment in the late 1990s might be the last such introduction.
Since then we've been experiencing incremental improvements to established equipment technology: better design, EFI, adoption of alternative fuels, more efficient batteries, etc.
Finding myself sitting adjacent to Matt Kaldor at a dinner several weeks ago, and learning that he was an engineer with Bobcat, I just had to ask the question: "What do you see as the next big innovation in product development?" (Who better to ask than an individual intimately involved in product development in a progressive company?)
Matt, a trim man with a long thin face and easy smile, paused a moment in quiet reflection then responded that end users, including landscapers, want equipment that has features now commonplace in their personal vehicles. He described it as "improving the experience between machine and man."
He said the days of an equipment operator going home exhausted and sore after running a piece of production equipment for hours at a time are over. Or, at least, it should be.
His response brought to mind the sunny, unseasonably hot March day in 2012 that I spent demo'ing compact Caterpillar work machines - loaders, backhoes and telehandlers - as a guest of Cat at its Clayton (N.C.) Machine Development Center. It was great fun and I recalled how surprised (and delighted) I was that even me, a neophyte, could operate these units reasonably well. Their automotive-style controls made it simple, although admittedly, I hardly exhibited the "touch" of an experienced operator.
The morning following my more recent dinner chat with Kaldor I got an opportunity to put a Bobcat Toolcat through its paces. The rugged utility machine was equipped with a front-mounted snowblower. Again, similar to my experience with the Cat units, I climbed into a climate-controlled cab, received a couple of minutes of instruction from Kaldor, and off I went plowing through a snow-covered hotel parking lot. It was a snap.
Obviously, adding creature comforts such as tilt steering wheels, radios, enclosed cabs, air conditioning and heat and air-ride seats to a basic unit come with a price tag. Most are options. It's up to a business owner, of course, to determine if these features (or some of them, at least) will benefit them enough to offset their price.
If an operator is comfortable and less fatigued, that operator will produce more work than if they're wrestling with an aging, hard-to-operate machine or working unprotected from the weather. You're also more apt to retain good employees if they don't get beat up every day using outdated equipment.
Finally, consider how many hours you (or one of your trusted employees) spend on a unit, whether it's laser grading a site under a hot July sun or sweeping snow from clients' sidewalks in a pre-dawn snowstorm. Wouldn't you appreciate the same features and comforts in that unit that you have in the pickup truck you drive just minutes each day to your office or to job sites?
In terms of landscape equipment anyway, innovation seems to be arriving one improvement at a time. Until the next whiz-bang innovation arrives (and who can predict when that will be?) that looks like what we'll have to count on and embrace to improve efficiencies and drive our businesses and our industry.
To comment, contact Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org
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