John Deere is Using APIs to Grow the World’s Food Supply
When something as simple as an API can integrate massive amounts of data into, and through, a wide variety of applications, any company can be a digital enterprise. There is a perception that some industries are using technology to innovate, while others languish in antiquated ways of running their business. But in our massively connected age, it's rare to find examples where technology isn't making an impact on helping organizations grow and become more efficient.
John Deere is one of the world's largest and most successful manufacturers of agricultural machinery, and it's not a stretch to say that they are responsible for much of the food on your table. They're enabling an entire ecosystem of innovation for everyone involved with agriculture through the APIs they offer in their developer program.
At first look, it may seem a stretch to think about how an API can enhance tractors, but John Deere isn’t in the business of just making machinery anymore. They want to enable efficient growth of the global food supply, and to do that they are making technology part of every element of the value chain they touch: from how crops are planted, harvested, managed, and the equipment that is used in the process. These are not just using technology, but as pointed out in, How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition, a new piece in the Harvard Business Review: “…sensors, processors, software, and connectivity in products (in effect, computers are being put inside products), coupled with a product cloud in which product data is stored and analyzed and some applications are run, are driving dramatic improvements in product functionality and performance.”
Consider the complexity of getting from farm to table. Logistics, time-to-market, and quality are the essence of agriculture, maybe as much as taste is. Whether it is a cow, a banana, or a cashew, it has a long and rather complicated lifecycle, and a lot of data associated with it that can be tracked. This type of business requires an environment that uses technology to germinate, breed, nurture, and care for things that cannot easily be stored or shipped. And today's consumer wants access to an ever-growing range of food products, and expects to be able to find a pineapple in Reykjavik in February. That involves an integration of many players, and it cannot be accomplished without sophisticated use of technology.
The API-Enabled IoT “Stack”
This is what the Internet of Things (IoT) looks like. Far from being a gadget in the cab of a tractor, IoT is really just an API-enabled platform for extending data to the things that are being used to deliver value for a brand. For John Deere, that means treating their products as data repositories, with collection, dissemination, and usage coming from tilling, digging, picking, and just basically doing what they’re out in the fields for the in first place. It’s just that now, they are being leveraged to do more than ever before. For John Deere's users and customers that means using tractors, excavators, and loaders to use information gathered from other sources to make better more advantageous decisions. It means that the same excavator also becomes an additional collection point in their data loop.
How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition explains that there is a “stack” that constitutes a connected, smart product. In that stack is the product cloud, which is essentially the data being discovered, shared and processed, the connectivity layer, which enables communication between the data and the product, and the product itself, which is manifested in either, or both, the product hardware and software. Those things combined make a tractor a data collection device, a real-time processing tool, and a rendering machine that makes the job of the operator easier and more valuable. Rather than stick with rote, traditional ways of conducting the job of harvesting, for example, a farmer can now be better equipped to do his job at the optimal time of day, in the best location possible, and with predictive market knowledge to help him better prioritize his time.
Farmers and manufacturers can make use of their existing mobile devices (smartphones and tablets, mostly) as tools for data collection and delivery. This gives an entirely new dimension to the Internet of Things because it layers new technology and solutions into the hands of people who are willing to try new things, but want to keep disruptions to a minimum. Farmers want to grow, and then sell. Technology, if it doesn’t quickly help their situation, is nothing more than a nuisance.
IoT, Data, and APIs Create Markets
There are so many components and roles that go into creating a marketplace for food, and John Deere is leading the way to enable connectedness and innovation among them. Working with Growmark, for example, John Deere is using an API that helps crop specialists and farmers collect, share and analyze information about soils and crops. Farmers get relevant, real-time access to data and instructions help them solve specific issues immediately, all through a Web application that is accessible through multiple channels.
In the spirit of true open source, John Deere provides for its ecosystem of partners, suppliers, customers and all manner of stakeholders, a vast amount of data in their MyJohnDeere cloud. The MyJohnDeere Data API allows interested parties to upload their own data, and pull and share files among other developers. With this type of accessibility, decisions about almost all types of manufacturing, construction and agriculture issues can be addressed immediately and with a high degree of relevance. The AEMP API provides access to equipment information and helps other manufacturers and suppliers with specifics about parts, serial numbers, fuel consumption and other information that can help them provide the right type of complementary products and solutions.
John Deere figured out something early, before most auto manufacturers did – leveraging their API and data capabilities is what dramatically increases their reach. That generally comes from having the foresight and planning to extend data and capabilities to other platforms. The HBR article explains this nicely in the context of what auto manufacturers missed, and where the suppliers of data understand: “Auto OEMs’ traditional clout relative to suppliers is greatly diminished with suppliers like Google, which have not only substantial resources and expertise but also strong consumer brands and numerous related applications (for example, consumers may prefer a car that can sync with their smartphone, music, and apps).”
A true example of extending the Internet of Things can be found in the John Deere Field Connect API, which takes advantage of monitors that measure soil moisture levels. These monitors have probes and gateways that transmit real-time information to John Deere servers. Through secure transmission of data, that information can be used by web applications (on-premise, in the cloud and in mobile devices) to access other organization's data in an effort to detect soil issues and provide proper field management.
The HBR article highlights something quite poignant about the advantages that come from this combination of data and devices; they differentiate companies and products among their competitors in ways those companies probably hadn’t previously considered. A manufacturer can become a distributor of data. A services company can highlight its brand reaching customers through devices. Device-based apps and tools can now be rendered on multiple types of devices, irrespective of platform. This creates market opportunities that scale beyond what is considered in most go-to-market plans, and strengthens the value of the brand, and all of this, usually for the cost of some API development and management.
Crops and hogs don't care about big data, and farmers lose money every minute they aren't being efficient and productive. But with APIs, they have better information in an environment in which they are already familiar, there is a net result of smarter business operations. For them, that means less waste and more profit. For the consumer, it means that not only do they get that pineapple in winter, but hopefully also that less water was required to grow it and fewer carbon emissions were used to get it to their grocery store.