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Meet five of John Deere’s high-tech stars – Agweek

FARGO, North Dakota — Since 2015, John Deere has instituted a “fellows” program, essentially honoring some of its most impactful employees.


These “fellow” designations indicate productivity within the company, but also influence in their disciplines outside of the company. Only 48 of the company’s thousands of engineers and scientists have ever received the award. Only 30 still working out of 75,000 currently have received it.

Five of those are in Fargo. All but one hold doctorate degrees. Here is a glimpse of what they do, and why.

Kent Wanner, 48, is a senior staff “electrification engineer” with the “Intelligent Solutions” group in the company — a technical mentor, helping apply “electrification”  (motor-drives) into tractors, skid-steer loaders or other vehicles.

“To be recognized by your peers and managers is really a powerful, humbling experience,” Wanner said.

A smiling man in glasses and a blue-and-white checked shirt.

Kent Wanner is a John Deere senior staff engineer for electrification. He received the company’s “Electrification Engineering Fellow” designation in 2022. Photo taken Dec. 6, 2022, Fargo, North Dakota.

Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Wanner grew up on a grain and cattle farm at Hebron, North Dakota, where his brother, Don, still farms. He earned an electrical engineering degree from North Dakota State University, and in 1997 started work with Phoenix International Inc. in Fargo. John Deere purchased Phoenix in 1999 and dropped the Phoenix name in 2014. His first project at Phoenix was a very simple circuit, part of a timer for irrigation, he said.

At John Deere, Wanner and colleagues design motor drives for high-powered electric drive “vehicles,” including farm tractors.

“I think part of our job is to show that we can bring the technology to market when it’s right, when it’s ready to meet the needs of our customers — when it makes them money,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Wanner shifted to “electrification” design.

“It merged my knowledge of microprocessors and electric circuits” to challenges of “cooling of high-powered things, a mechanical sort of thing, and understanding operation and control of electric motors, which have significant mechanical aspects as well.”

One application is IVT (infinitely variable transmission), which coordinates the electronically-regulated engine and transmission to provide complete operator control, increasing productivity and fuel economy. IVTs today are hydrostatic, using fluid pressure. John Deere is working on IVTs controlled with electric drives.

The electrification offers other benefits, including providing electrical power to implements.

“It’s going to enable new things in the future,” he said. “We’re going to have high-power, high-efficiency and great controllability with all the electronics, enabling things people have never been able to do before,” he said.

Wanner said technology coming out of Fargo is employing North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota kids who went to NDSU and other regional universities.

Wanner is known for taking new colleagues — interns and graduate students, some from all over the world — out to his home farm. It gives them a feel for the farmer-rancher customers they are serving while working with John Deere and what the brand means to our customers in terms of performance and quality, he said.

“Our goal is to develop technology and use it in ways that we know will make our customers money,” Wanner said. “We’re not here, necessarily, pushing: ‘You have to buy a battery electric tractor because it’s cool.’ We start with, ‘What is the highest value for our customers?’ As the technology gets cheaper and better and smaller, we can apply it to more and more things.”

A man with white hair, a big smile.

Will Cooper, advanced engineer manager, received John Deere’s “Physics of Electronics Materials Fellow” award in 2021. His ability is to analyze, assess and resolve complex to ensure ruggedized electronics are sufficiently reliable in harsh field environments. Photo taken Dec. 6, 2022, Fargo, North Dakota.

Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Will Cooper, 66, advanced engineering manager for packaging and analysis, leads a group of about a dozen materials, polymers and mechanical engineers. Cooper holds degrees in chemical physics with a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota and a doctorate at NDSU. For a time, Cooper co-owned a company that used a “tunable ultraviolet laser” to find ground contaminants related to the chemical and petroleum sites.
In 1998, Cooper joined Phoenix International, which became John Deere. Among his first projects were “light pipes” for back-lighting dashboard displays and John Deere’s first ground speed radar.

By 2004, under John Deere ownership, Cooper used his chemistry to diagnose unexplained failures in products.

“We started to get into the physics of the failures,” he said.

His focus shifted in 2006. European environmental laws started prohibiting certain toxic chemicals used by machine manufacturers. Specifically, they outlawed “tin-lead solder” in their auto manufacturing.

While good for the environment, outlawing tin-lead was a challenge.

“All of our field experience was in tin-lead,” he said. A single engine controller can have thousands of solder joints, he said, and they all have to work. “Nobody had any idea what was going to happen.”

By 2010, the company had created and tested alternatives, which now are in production.

Cooper runs the “advanced tech lab.” This means “material science,” which studies products at the molecular level.

“We want to make sure the materials we’re putting into products are going to work over the long run before we actually start using them,” he said. “When you start making the ‘packages’ smaller and smaller, and you also start increasing the ‘compute power’ inside them, now all of a sudden you’ve got some serious thermal issues. Because things are getting really, really hot.”

Temperatures inside an engine controller are running over 257 degrees —above the water boiling temperature of 212 F. He and his group work on how the parts — on a combine or anything else — can be cooled or can run hotter, safer, without fail. The electronics should be “invisible,” and not causing problems.

“A combine is just a tool, right? A tractor is a tool, and it just has to work” Cooper said.

A man with a black moustache smiles.

Brij Singh is manager for external relationships for John Deere in Fargo. He was awarded the Power Electronics Fellow in 2020. He is known as a teacher and mentor, as well as for finding collaborative funding partners from “partners” in government, academia and non-competing industries. Photo taken Dec. 6, 2022, Fargo, North Dakota.

Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Brij Singh, 55,  earned degrees in India, and is the Region 4 manager for external relationships. Singh is a “power electronics engineering fellow.” He is known for teaching, mentoring and researching achievements. He has 32 patents approved and a dozen pending.

Singh’s history in agriculture is impressive. He grew up in India on a farm where his family’s ownership is recorded back to the year 1360 — 660 years. He was the first in his family to go to college. He earned a doctorate in engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, India. He went on to research posts in Montreal, Canada, and then Tulane University in New Orleans, and finally with John Deere in Fargo.

Singh specializes in high-voltage power electronic design — testing and product and technology development. Equipment he’s worked went into construction loaders in production and will be a part of row crop tractor models, scheduled to go to customers in the next several years.

He shifted to “advanced” engineering, the step before production engineering.

One area of interest is “diesel-electric hybrid powertrain,” especially identifying the “sweet spot” for efficiency and uses battery power to provide for peak power use while keeping the diesel engine smaller, when practical. The goal is to reduce fuel consumption, when it makes sense, and cut the “daily operating cost.”

Lately, Singh is singled out for achievements in building relationships with external partners — universities and government laboratories and non-compete industries. Important concepts include real-time carbon sensing in the soil, or overall reduction in greenhouse gas. In an age when government has certain greenhouse gas objectives, he has attracted millions of dollars in research collaborations, including Department of Energy grants, universities and non-compete industry collaborations to accelerate work concepts John Deere wants to work on and commercialize. Some involve developing advanced materials that can withstand very high temperatures.

Noel Anderson, 62, a native of West St. Paul, Minnesota, with family farm ties to Minnesota farms in Worthington and Austin, is “intellectual property lead” for John Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group-Fargo.
Anderson is known as John Deere’s most prolific inventor. He holds 154 patents and about 70 patents more are “pending,” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. (U.S. patents are often filed in four other countries, depending on the application and anticipated value.)

A man with a beard and glasses smiles.

Noel Anderson is senior staff engineer for advanced technology. His John Deere Fellow award in 2019 marked success in Strategic Intellectual Property. He has 154 U.S. patents and 70 patents pending. His work has been in artificial intelligence, automation-to-autonomy, machine health, advanced diagnostics and unmanned aerial vehicles. Photo taken Dec. 6, 2022, Fargo, North Dakota.

Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“I work with trying to promote an inventive culture,” Anderson said. He works as a mentor and strategizes on ways to protect the company’s intellectual property trade secrets.

Most of Anderson’s inventions involve “intelligent systems for automation and autonomy,” for precision agriculture, involving planting, crop care, and harvesting. Some haven’t yet gotten into the “commercialization phase.”

Anderson holds a doctorate in computer engineering from Iowa State University in Ames. He joined the engineering faculty at North Dakota State University and then worked for Concord before coming to Phoenix International, now John Deere.

John Deere in Fargo deserves credit for innovations, including the use of GPS technology and engine controllers. GPS signals initially were correct within 300 feet, then 30 feet, then 2.5 centimeters, using towers, and satellites.

“Having it accurate — not only pass-to-pass, but within the season, and then we’re looking between growing seasons — is going to be a real critical feature for some of the precision ag things that are coming out,” Anderson said.

John Deere engineers work on such concepts as “automatic feed-rate control” in combines.

A man stands at the end of a hallway wall that is covered with plaques, reproducing patents earned.

A hallway display in John Deere’s high-tech Power Electronic Systems building on 19th Avenue North, in Fargo, shows some of the patents achieved by top employees here on Dec. 6, 2022. At right is Noel Anderson, who holds 154 U.S. patents for inventions, with another 70 more pending.

Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Looking ahead, it will be important to ensure good broadband connections between equipment pieces. Engineers must incorporate cybersecurity — making sure things don’t get “hacked.” “Data authenticity,” will be important for farmers — both the data they purchase and produce.

Some of Andersons inventions are not yet ready to go into the field.

Some of the information will be gathered in novel ways. How novel?

John Deere has invested in “InnerPlant,” a company that’s put green fluorescent protein genes into plants. If the “biosensors” are stressed, light that hits the plant will “fluoresce,” when the plant is under stress from moisture, nitrogen or disease, providing a large-scale affordable scouting tool, visible from a machine, high-altitude or even from space.

“You might have a variety of corn that is sensitive to nitrogen and then you have some dedicated spots in the field where you would plant this fluorescent variety to report on the nitrogen,” he said.

John Deere has “a lot of cool stuff coming down the road that I can’t talk about,” Anderson said, smiling. But he said the reason for it all is clear: “We’ve got the challenge of feeding 9 billion to 10 billion people here in about 30 years.”

A man with black hair, glasses and a shirt with a John Deere logo, smiles.

Long Wu, is module lead for power electronics control systems for John Deere, in Fargo, North Dakota. Wu earned the company’s “Power Electronics Engineering Fellow” in 2018. He is at the forefront of Deere’s efforts in motor control and power electronics. Photo taken Dec. 6, 2022, Fargo, North Dakota.

Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Long Wu, 46, who was the first “fellow” from the Fargo plant, manages John Deere’s electrification controls and software module in Fargo. They write the software and controls that reside in the products. This involves the simulation and virtual testing of the software.

After college in China, Wu came to the U.S. and earned a master’s in Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering/power electronics at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Wu has 42 U.S. patents, relating to power electronics control and power management.
Wu started at John Deere in 2007, working on construction and forestry equipment. He worked on power electronics control for the company’s 644 hybrid loaders. The Model 644 converts the rotational energy from the engine into three-phase alternating current (AC) electrical energy. Also, it can be driven as a motor to use recycled energy to drive hydraulics and save fuel. Wu worked on the generator control and traction motor control for the electrical drivetrain.

Over his 16 years at John Deere, Wu has also worked on ag-related projects, including the “integrated smart motor” into the ExactEmerge planting system. His primary role was conducting “software modeling and simulation.”

“Deere was probably the first company offering electrical drive-enabled planting equipment,” Wu said.

His team continues to work toward more features, including precision spraying. Electronics and electrification will bring faster controls to adapt to changing conditions, providing better performance with higher efficiency.

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