By Kara Lidberg
Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Noel Anderson has a unique position at John Deere Electronic Solutions (JDES). “At the intersection of advanced technology and intellectual property,” Anderson seeks to find cutting-edge solutions that enhance the company’s patent portfolio and eventually finds its way into new and impactful products. At the most basic explanation, he is an inventor with a time horizon of five to 15 years into the future.
Anderson’s interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields started when he was a child. As a future-oriented and creative young boy, his first exposure to construction, agriculture, robotics and artificial intelligence began when he was in early grade school.
However, having a career in off-road machinery and agricultural technology was not on his radar when he moved to Fargo to be on faculty at NDSU in 1988.
“Howard Dahl got me interested and I went to work for him at Concord Inc. in the early 1990s with a focus on precision agriculture,” Anderson said. Concord was later acquired by Case Corporation and when Case merged with New Holland, his position was eliminated. Dahl recommended Anderson talk to Barry Batcheller, the president and CEO of Appareo Systems, and he ended up in advanced technology at Phoenix International, now John Deere Electronic Solutions, in 2000.
John Deere is deep in the innovation of the agricultural space, and while precision agriculture, autonomy and automation get a lot of press, Anderson thinks that the more impressive JDES technology is “under the hood” in GPS receivers and engine controllers.
“A lot of this technology is held as trade secrets and is highly technical in nature, so the public doesn’t get to see it or appreciate it as much,” he said. “GPS location quality and engine performance quietly improve year over year.”
Regarding the Cultivate Conference, of which Anderson is a speaker, he believes that the necessary merging of agriculture and technology is less of a collision and more closely relates to “a cross-pollination” with the ultimate goal being to produce food and fiber more sustainably.
Anderson states that technology is about solving problems — a “see a need, fill a need” mentality, quoting the 2005 animated movie Robots, of which he thinks represents the concept perfectly. In fact, he mentions that agriculture itself is a form of technology that started thousands of years ago from a desire to have a more abundant and predictable food supply than hunting and gathering.
Anderson believes that as the agricultural industry grows and adapts to changing times, more technology-focused solutions will be pushed in the next 30 years than was seen in the previous 30, particularly in order to meet the goal of feeding a global population of 10 billion.
“In the United States, there has historically been an ag labor shortage,” Anderson said, “which has driven bigger, more productive machinery for nearly 200 years.” He mentions that with the use of improved crop genetics and ag chemicals, productivity has also been increased over the last 100 years. “We may see a shift away from maximizing production in order to enhance sustainability,” he continued. “Indoor crop production and laboratory-produced foods may also impact our food sourcing in the future.”
The number one question Anderson gets asked is “How do you get your ideas?”
“I’m always in ‘invention mode’ of trying to pair up problems with solutions,” he said, which requires knowledge of both current and future customer needs as well as existing and emerging technologies.
Anderson would say that time is his biggest obstacle. “Once I get a seed of an idea,” he said, “I need to invest time to vet it and then develop it as an invention disclosure that gets entered into the John Deere patent process.”
JDES has been refreshing its advanced technology portfolio to better align investment in emerging technologies with emerging customer needs in precision agriculture, autonomy and automation. This process will be continuing in years to come with a focus on areas like embedded computing, sensing and power electronics.
Due to confidentiality, Anderson couldn’t go into much detail about future inventions, but he thinks most will be in the automation and precision agriculture space.
“I am not very excitable,” he said when asked about the future. “I consider myself more of a grinder who acts consistently over a long period of time towards an end. In the case of my career, it is helping provide food, clothing and infrastructure to a growing global population through better technology.”
The John Deere Fellows Program
Anderson has also been named a 2019 John Deere Fellow, receiving recognition in Strategic Intellectual Property. The John Deere Fellows Program is the highest level of recognition an individual employee can receive. This award indicates a team member’s contribution to the company’s success through an exceptional reputation, displayed leadership and deep expertise in their field.
Live and Learn Like an Inventor
From preschool to receiving his Ph.D., Anderson had been in school for 25 straight years and simply never turned off, and doesn’t intend to, his ability and desire to learn.
A typical day is bookended by a two to three-mile one-way walk between his home and the John Deere office. On these walks, he’ll triple utilize his time by commuting, exercising and learning, most likely listening to an audiobook.
In the middle of the day is another three-mile lunch walk with one or more co-workers with discussion on a wide range of technical and non-technical topics.
While at his office or home desk, he collaborates with colleagues from around the world by phone or in person, searches and studies patents and technical documents and develops patent concepts and IP strategies.
For anyone looking “to up their information intake,” Anderson encourages people to ask themselves:
- What are the activities that could be upgraded?
- Are there activities that can have content added like audiobooks on my commute?
- Is there content that can be upgraded such as replacing music with podcasts?