One could say that Grand Farm wouldn’t be possible without Bobcat Company. If Ed Melroe and the Keller brothers hadn’t invented and manufactured the three-wheel loader then Bobcat Company wouldn’t have been formed. If Bobcat Company was never formed, Steiger Tractor wouldn’t have happened. No Steiger Tractor, no Concord Inc. No Concord, no Amity Technology. And on and on. Like the ever-branching family tree, the business tree of ag tech in North Dakota can be traced back to Bobcat. Success begets success.
For 60 years, Bobcat Company has been the leading innovator in the design, manufacturing, marketing and distribution of compact equipment for construction, rental, landscaping, agriculture, grounds maintenance, government, utility, industry and mining. However, the question is, how does the company continue that success? Well, that’s where Joel Honeyman, VP of Global Innovation for Doosan Bobcat North America, comes in.
About Joel Honeyman
Having been with Bobcat for 22 years, Honeyman has played an integral role in the growth of the organization. Coming from an ag background having grown up on a farm near Regent, N.D., he started his career with Bobcat when, for 10 years, he led North American sales and, about four years ago, he moved into his current position. Now, he and his group, are responsible for looking at different technologies and how they can be applied to their products, business and how they can create new business models from them.
Q: A lot of the people we’ve talked to like Barry Batcheller and Howard Dahl credit Bobcat’s history in Fargo. What does it feel like to work for an organization with that much history?
A: It comes from our roots, which is 60 plus years ago when it was this farmer who had this need and he went to the Keller brothers to solve that need and out of that came the three-wheel loader. That’s our heritage. Agriculture is our heritage and roots. Out of that, we’ve continued that legacy.
Of course, our business has evolved. We still do ag business but a lot more of our business is construction, industrial and those kinds of things but ag is still very much a part of what we do.
We have a nostalgic viewpoint of our origins and roots here in North Dakota being tied to ag. There’s a lot of ag people that work in our company so we have that background.
How Bobcat Company helped create the Grand Farm
Bobcat Company had a lasting effect on the ag tech business scene in Fargo- Moorhead. This graphic from Barry Batcheller’s 2018 TED talk shows all the companies that have spun off from Bobcat over the years.
Q: What will we be seeing in
the next couple years?
A: We’re taking a look at several new technologies, not just in our industry but every other industry and how they might apply to our products, to our business or to create new business models. For example, we now have select customers using an app that allows you to remotely control a Bobcat loader with your iPhone.
Because of the use of the internet and connectivity, we’re now connected to our equipment through telematics. We now have tens of thousands of machines connected providing data every day. Because of that connection, it will allow us to o er new services and features to our customers and being able to do that remotely using your phone, personal computer or whatever it might be.
Q: What are you doing in terms of automation?
A: We are working actively in that area. How we view this is that there’s going to be certain functions that will make the machine be enabled to be autonomous. It’s not like tomorrow you wake up and your Bobcat loader can fully do everything. There will be certain features and things along the way that will take place.
It’s like a car. A car has cruise control, lane guidance avoidance and all these other things. Those are steps the automakers need to take to make a car fully autonomous. We’re doing the same things in our equipment.
Q: How far out are we from seeing the first stages?
A: The first pieces, we’re looking to commercialize within the year. The remote control is a piece of that. The iPhone remote control allows us to do certain things. That’s a platform to be able to enable autonomous features in the future.
To my earlier point, this is a platform. You start with one piece and you start to add additional pieces on.
Q: One of the things that Barry Batcheller (President and CEO at Appareo Systems) brought up was that larger ag tech companies like Bobcat Company and John Deere might be some of the later players in automation in agriculture because the scale you’re working on is harder to shift. What would you say to that?
A: I would say because we started this industry and we’re the market leader and innovator, we have to be the innovation leader. Our thinking is that we need to be first. We need to be a leader in this space. There’s too much risk not to do that. Look at what Uber did to the cab industry. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t come out of anywhere. They could come out of some different space and put some sort of feature on our equipment and make it autonomous and then we didn’t develop it. We want to be at the forefront of that.
Q: Is there anything that’s hindering the technology from advancing quicker than it could? E.g. policy or the adoption rate by your customers.
A: I don’t think there’s a hindrance that way. I think that since there are so many different technologies out there, the challenge is to determine what has value. What should we be working on? What are those basic things? With technology, how do you keep it simple for the user? Especially in agriculture and construction, our customers don’t want overly complex solutions. I think our challenge is to make sure we provide an adequate level of technology that enables these things but yet is simple to use. It’s that balance.
I’ve seen it happen the other way. You can be way too far in front of your customer and a solution. Three years from now, it might be a great thing but today it’s not.
Q: Over the course of the 60 years of Bobcat’s history, it could have gone anywhere in the world. Obviously, its roots are here but why did it stay and why are you continuing to stay?
A: I think it’s because of the work ethic of the people we have here. Our roots are here. Our main plants for North America are in North Dakota. Many of us who work for Bobcat grew up in North
Dakota or Minnesota knowing who Bobcat was and wanting to be part of it. There is a long history of pride in this company up here. Multiple generations of families that have worked for the company. We’re successful being here. Why would we want to move away?
Q: To talk about Grand Farm, it’s obviously more than just the farm. It’s the push toward the ag tech ecosystem. What does that mean for Bobcat? Are you worried that this could potentially attract other competitors?
A: We see what’s going on with production agriculture. There’s a lot of technology and innovation there already for bigger tractors, combines, farms and things like that. This is a natural progression that there would be other pieces of equipment like ours that would also be a part of that type of environment. We know that there’s a shortage of labor. People are looking for more productivity to be able to support the production that’s taking place here.
Farms today are producing much more crops than they used to and, of course, they need equipment and innovation to be able to continue to do that.
Q: We’ve talked to a couple different farmers and they’ve said that manufacturers can be out of touch with what they actually need. In your position, that seems like something easy to fall into. How are you making sure that you’re listening to the customer?
A: My group, the innovation team, puts out three or four variations to a solution and we test all of those with di erent customers. Then we pick the best one and we continue to iterate against that one in order to have the best solution out there.
We’ve also brought groups of customers into our Acceleration Center in Bismarck. We have open sessions with them to show them the latest things we’re working on along with the other things that we’re doing in the field and gather their feedback.
We have two customers in North Dakota today that have the first two prototypes of our remote control. Our first prototypes of a lot of our products are tested right here in North Dakota first.
Q: When it comes to innovation and the future of ag tech, what do you want them to know about?
A: I want them to know that Bobcat, in addition, to making a great piece of equipment is also dedicated to being an innovation leader in this space. We are investing heavily in that to maintain our innovation edge, which has always been with us for the last 60 years. We are committed to that innovation, whether that’s in software, hardware, different business models, whatever it might be.
In the future, it’s not going to just be about the equipment. It’s going to be about how the customer or the operator interacts with that equipment as well. That’s the new world we’re going to be living in.
The Digital Business Innovation Center
Earlier this year, Doosan Bobcat announced that they are opening a digital business innovation center in the newly remodeled Black Building in Downtown Fargo. This 11,000-square-foot space will feature project team rooms, innovation areas, project pitch area and much more all designed to be the facility to do rapid prototyping and ideation around ideas for innovation and their digital business.
“This is going to be our facility to do rapid prototyping, rapid ideation around ideas around innovation and digital business to be able to very quickly develop those ideas, vet those out to customers and then to find out whether they fit,” said Honeyman. “This is a cross-functional development center. There will be many tools to enable development. The facility itself serves as a tool to enable collaboration and development differently than a corporate headquarters can, for example.
The location was also a strategic decision. The Black Building was originally constructed in 1930 and is being remodeled by Kilbourne Group, a developer in Fargo responsible for a lot of the revitalization of Downtown Fargo.
“We looked at a number of different sites within Fargo,” said Honeyman. “When we looked at other facilities in Fargo, downtown became very advantageous because there are other players down there and because of the vibrancy of downtown Fargo. Downtown Fargo, for this area, is a really unique place. For us to attract new employees and for us to show we’re really working on new technologies in these areas, we felt it was important to have this kind of facility in Downtown to enable that.
Doosan Bobcat expects to begin operating out of the Black Building by October 1.