It’s a story that’s becoming more and more common.
You’re smack dab in the middle of harvest and an error code appears on your combine’s monitor. A call to the dealership results in a long wait for a technician to come out, with anxiety rising with every passing hour because priceless harvesting time is being lost or, worse, nasty weather is moving in.
Then when the technician gets to your farm, he determines what is needed is to reset (or ‘flash’) the onboard computer.
That happened to Cole Siegle last fall when he was harvesting canola, leaving the Fairview-area producer to wonder why he can’t have access to the same diagnostic tools.
“If I could have done that myself or been able to use a mechanic or a technician who’s closer to me, our downtime could have gone from six hours to two hours,” he said. “That four hours could have been the difference between getting a crop off before the snow or not.”
But these days it’s dealerships — via sales and service agreements with manufacturers — that have legal access to these diagnostic tools. So when an error message pops up, farmers and independent mechanics are out in the cold, sometimes literally.
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“As a producer I think we need access to these diagnostic tools,” said Siegle. “If (manufacturers) want to continue to build equipment like this that’s fine, but we need access to the laptops with the programs that we can plug into our equipment so we can buy whatever part we need.”
Equipment manufacturers make a lot of repair information public, including what codes mean, but giving access to proprietary tools raises several issues, said John Schmeiser, CEO of the Western Equipment Dealers Association.
The hardware and software Siegle and other farmers wish to acquire for repair purposes can also be used to modify equipment to the detriment of machinery, warranties, the lawfulness of their operations and even their own safety, he said.
“I applaud the manufacturers that put a lot of stuff online like parts, service manuals and operational guides. But it’s a slippery slope,” said Schmeiser.
“When you provide special tools to somebody outside a controlled environment like the manufacturer/dealer relationship, that opens the door for illegal modification. They lose that control when they provide diagnostic or special tools to a third-party retailer with whom they don’t have the same sales and services agreement.”
Repair versus modify
‘Right to repair’ is a term being thrown around a lot in ag circles today, but it means different things to different people.
For Siegle and other like-minded producers, it means the right to either repair equipment themselves or hire an unaffiliated local mechanic — just as farmers have done throughout the history of mechanized agriculture.
But Schmeiser argues that farmers’ right to repair is already entrenched in law in many jurisdictions (including Alberta) as long as the owner is using the equipment for its intended purpose and doesn’t violate manufacturer standards.
The right to repair (R2R) movement (which started in the tech sphere but expanded to other areas, such as ag equipment) is actually a front for promoting the ‘right to modify,’ he said.
Often that means making modifications to bypass environmental controls in order to boost vehicle horsepower.
“There are over 25 states that had R2R bills introduced — every one impacting farm equipment has been defeated,” said Schmeiser. “They haven’t passed because as the state representatives were hearing the rationale coming from R2R advocates, they were finding out that what they were really looking for is to modify the equipment in a manner where it can get around emission standards and violate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laws and regulations.”
DEF delete and chipping
There are two specific actions that concern Schmeiser’s association (a Missouri-based advocacy group for equipment dealerships with a Canadian headquarters in Calgary).
One is circumventing Diesel Exhaust Fluid (or DEF) emissions systems using grey-market ‘DEF delete’ kits to boost horsepower on tractors and combines. Another is ‘chipping’ or ‘tuning,’ which usually refers to adding a specific chip to increase horsepower.
Bypassing emissions control systems contravenes the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, leaving producers open to fines, said Schmeiser, adding he was unsure of the Canadian penalties but breaches of similar U.S. laws have produced fines in excess of $300,000.
Part of the problem is that not everyone knows this practice is illegal. Another is it comes with a host of potential risks including damaged equipment, voided warranties, reduced trade-in value, insurance cancellation and even safety, he said.
“We have seen an unusual number of combine fires this (past) year,” said Schmeiser.
“Now, we have had some dry conditions but in some of those cases the combines were running hotter (due to alterations).
“The insurance company will look at it from the standpoint that you have altered your combine away from the manufacturer’s original standards and you are going to be denied insurance coverage in a situation like that.”
But Siegle isn’t convinced.
He said he has no interest in making such modifications to his equipment and suggested it’s a straw man argument from manufacturing and dealership interests seeking exclusive control over the diagnostic tools.
The kind of modification Siegle is concerned about losing is the legal ability to place, for example, a third-party manufacturer’s custom header on a John Deere combine. Specifically, he worries about big manufacturers denying third-party companies the codes required for an implement to interact with a tractor or combine.
Schmeiser said this isn’t considered modification but rather interoperability or connectivity: A third party designing an implement to attach to another manufacturer’s product. This is a long-standing tradition in the manufacturing and dealership industries that few if anyone has any interest in ceasing, he said (see accompanying story).
The business aspect
All of this still does not answer Siegle’s fundamental question: Why can’t I — or mechanics unaffiliated with specific manufacturers — have all the tools required to diagnose and fix a mechanical problem?
In the past it was relatively easy for mechanically minded producers and unaffiliated mechanics to repair machinery because it ran on tried-and-traditional engineering principles. This is still by and large the case, said Schmeiser, adding 95 per cent of equipment issues can still be fixed mechanically.
He said he understands the frustration farmers feel by not having diagnostic tools at their fingertips. But at the same time dealerships have rights as well, especially when one considers the considerable training and expense needed to obtain service contracts with manufacturers.
“What the farmer is speaking to is the frustration of being down. He wants to get up and running as quickly as possible. We get that,” said Schmeiser.
“But the moment the manufacturers start providing special tools or diagnostics equipment to businesses that are outside of their dealer contracts, doesn’t that diminish the value of the contract in the dealer’s eyes as well?… So what’s the incentive for the manufacturer to provide special tools or even service manuals to a third party that would be competing with somebody they have a contractual relationship with (and) who is also making a substantial financial investment to be the representative for the manufacturer?”