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Tractors of the future.

Still considered by many farmers as the tractor style of the future, sales of the JCB Fastrac already account for a 15% share of the 120 to 150-hp (90 to 112-KW) sector in Britain. With its rear deck and front and rear linkage systems, the Fastrac has proved there is a market for a multi-purpose tractor and JCB sees this type of unit as the way ahead. "The concepts behind the Fastrac will go well into the 21st century," says JCB's agricultural consultant Ken Bradley. Ivan Tatt, UK marketing manager, says a fully-suspended tractor has better traction than a non-suspended one as there is continual ground pressure. "We have broken the barrier of combining high speed with high traction," he adds.

The Clayton 4105 tractor, launched last summer, is also designed for versatility, based on the belief that one machine can do 80% of general farm work, including haulage and arable. However, Eric Clayton does not pretend the machine will plough or power heavy cultivation implements: "It is primarily aimed at doing all the top work as well as being able to haul."

Tough Laws

Although British farmers are in some respects dictating the change to more powerful, more mobile, more versatile tractors, engine design is another matter. Expected tough laws on exhaust fumes and gas emissions provide a challenge to engine manufacturers such as Perkins, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1992.

General sales manager John Baxter expects increasingly stringent regulations to be enforced in the agricultural sector by 1996-97: "Reductions in carbon-monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions, as well as visible smoke, adds other parameters to fuel economy, power, torque, etc.," he says. "To some extent, reduced engine emissions are in conflict with these parameters, although they will help reduce engine noise levels." Such an engine already exists, and was launched to the truck industry during 1992. These environmentally-friendly industrial diesel engines were designed at Perkins 40-million pounds Peterborough research complex in eastern England.

"This evolutionary development of the 1000 Series enables us to meet all forecast European off-highway emissions regulations through the rest of this century," claims general sales manager (vehicles), Gordon Mitchell. "It is now a question of tuning these engines for the tractor market," says Mr. Baxter, "which will allow us to reduce gas emissions by up to 30%. "He expects the move towards environmentally-friendly engines to increase still further next century.

"I believe the next generation of diesel engines will be two-stroke versions, producing less bulk for the same power. They are also cheaper, consisting of fewer parts." According to Mr. Baxter, the technology already exists to produce such engines, which will be 30% lighter than their four-stroke counterparts.

Future for Plastics

There has been a steady increase in the use of plastics in many kinds of machines and vehicles. Some see plastics as an important development area, particularly for engine components. Plastics do not rust and, in some instances, can be both stronger and more durable than steel. Also, plastic parts fit better and allow improved noise and weight reductions - this is where Perkins sees their future lying.

"The British-built Caterpillar back hoe loader is fitted with a plastic top rocker cover," says Mr. Baxter. "This is something that could be introduced into tractor engines, and the next area we shall be looking at is oil sumps." Many farmers are probably incredulous of the idea of tractor engines containing plastic parts stuck together with adhesives, but new structural adhesives (10 000 were listed in 1989 alone) can be as strong per running inch/cm of joint as spot welding.

While engine technology is clearly set to change dramatically during the next 20 years, so too are methods of reducing ground compaction and increasing drawbar pull. The British Government-funded Silsoe Research Institute has for several years been working on a rubber track system with suspension which it believes could have important implications for tractor design. It combines the improved tractive performance and low ground pressure of conventional crawlers with the on-road capabilities of wheeled tractors.

Claimed to give 25% more drawbar pull than wheels, while cutting compaction, it also has other benefits: the vehicle is up to 40% lighter than a wheeled tractor of the same tractive power, but capable of pulling an implement at the same speed.

Factory-Fitted Option

It is hoped the system can be retrofitted to conventional 2 or 4-wd tractors. However, the prototype tractor seen at the 1991 Royal Smithfield Show in London, on Richard Stocks Ltd. stand, was noticeably missing from the 1992 event.

"We have decided not to pursue the venture further," explains director Richard Stocks, "though I believe there will be a market for such a system." He confidently expects at least one tractor manufacturer to offer its own rubber track system as a factory-fitted option within ten years. Silsoe's Professor Brian Legg is also optimistic about the future for rubber-tracked tractors on British farms. "The benefit of the track is not in dispute," he declares. "The difficulty is in finding a manufacturing process to produce it economically, and we are currently seeking a manufacturer."

Professor Legg sees soil damage reduction as an important requirement. "We are looking for a method of reducing soil damage," he says, "which may take the form of lighter tractors using permanent tramlines." RDS Technology is developing its vehicle location system. Applications engineering manager Peter Nelson hopes it will be under evaluation before the 1993 harvest. The company is examining the use of radio frequency rather than systems that rely on satellite links. "It is easy to lose a satellite signal on hilly land," says Mr. Nelson.

Computer Control

Work on the system is under way with Silsoe College and Optimix Computer Systems, whose director, Bruce Eglington, believes that in ten to 20 years tractors will be fitted with powerful on-board computers with screens the same size as those currently used in farm offices.

"The tractor driver will insert a soft disk into the computer," he explains, "which will be programmed with a field map to allow sprayer, drill and fertiliser spreader outputs to be automatically controlled. I believe in two or three years we may see such a system being fitted in tractor cabs." Taking the system a stage further, it may yet be possible to have a driverless navigation system or "autopilot". "This may well be the feature of the tractor of the future," speculates RDS marketing director Nigel Brown, "but we are currently concerned with more immediate possibilities." The company is working with a tractor manufacturer, though the details are secret.

Vehicle location systems do not seem to far away, and the same may be true of semi-automatic tractor function control. Again, the Silsoe institute is leading the way with its integrated control system. Researched by Dr. Andrew Scarlett and David Tinker of the mechanical engineering division, the semi-automatic system controls major tractor components (engine, gearbox, implement hitch, for example) in a coordinated manner. Benefits include potential fuel savings in the region of ten to 15% compared with a standard tractor.

Ploughing Application

At the system's heart is a central control unit, a sort of supervisory brain that acts upon vehicle performance information supplied by the sub-systems' microprocessors, similar to the way in which a tractor driver would react and control the machine from his own experience. One application is in ploughing, where in changing conditions the system decides on a sub-system response - that is, engine power increase/decrease, implement raise/lower or gear-change ratio. The last is proving the most difficult, for though the quality of transmission systems continues to improve, if the computer decided to change gear every time there was a marginal variation in field conditions, the tractor driver would receive repeated unwanted jolts.

Will such a system reduce the skills needed by the operator? "Tractors which operate semi-automatically will not only be more efficient," says Dr. Scarlett, "but will greatly reduce driver workload. While an integrated control system could not outperform a highly-skilled operator at the beginning of a long working day, over the next 12 to 14 hours the efficiency of the driver would decline, whereas the control system would increase tractor operational efficiency by 15 to 25%."

Professor Legg says Silsoe is currently having discussions with a number of tractor manufacturers. Taking the concept a stage further, various other tractor functions could be included, such as automatic selection of 4wd and differential lock, cab environment control, suspension and tyre control and, particularly, communication with implement-based control systems.
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Title Annotation:New Product
Publication:Economic Review
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:May 1, 1993
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