Part of the role of a Product Manager is to help develop new products or enhance existing ones to make sure they meet, or exceed, the needs of the end-user. To do this, we regularly talk to customers and prospective customers - either face-to-face, on the phone and at focus groups - to obtain the information that will help us make a better machine. We also visit them and observe their working practices.
One of the principal influencers in this development process is the operator with their relative knowledge and expertise in handling the mower; another is the mechanic who services the machine and, finally, the management who set the policies and guidelines relating to maintenance and operation.
With operator knowledge and experience we often take things for granted; because we think we know how things work, we expect that everybody should know what we know. Thorough operator induction and training is vital, especially when new equipment is delivered, and it is the manufacturers' responsibility to make this as comprehensive as possible. Manufacturers can also play a role by developing standardised operator platforms. By making the control layout similar from model to model, familiarisation training is reduced, ensuring that the machines are productive as soon as possible.
Increasing the safety and comfort of the operator is also a primary concern. Increased health and safety considerations, with additional warning and alarm signals, may be construed by some operators as unnecessary or intrusive, but they are here to stay, and have contributed to the development of safer products.
Familiar items such as Role Over Protection Systems (ROPS) are often a heated topic of conversation, but prevention is better than cure. Although ROPS frames are a solution to safeguard the operator in a roll over scenario, it is important to acknowledge that devices have now been developed which introduce preventative measures, such as Tilt Sensing Technology. This indicates the angle of the slope and, where appropriate, is proactive in stabilising the machine to allow the operator to remove himself from a potentially dangerous slope.
Manufacturers are constantly listening to the marketplace, and demands for standard operating platforms are a common theme. Paramount in the development of standardised operating platforms is the need to accommodate a variation of people in weight and size. By introducing adjustable seats, steering columns, pedals, armrests and controls, and integrating these into the operator platform, the operator's comfort and productivity is increased by reducing their fatigue rate.
In some areas, this has been taken further by integrating suspension into the seat to reduce whole body vibration and its effects. We all appreciate that it's a long day at the office when sitting on a mower for up to ten hours, whilst trying to deliver a high quality finish.
Ease of access is also an important factor, and the introduction of large non-slip areas, incorporating steps or footplates, helps the operator to avoid standing on cutting units and provides a clear path for access and egress.
It is a fact of life, with a triple mower, that hitting hidden objects is unavoidable, and brings with it the potential to block a cutting cylinder. Always an issue, it's not too much of a problem accessing the front two cylinders. There are higher risks attached with unblocking the centre cutting unit. In the field, the operator has to lie on the floor, working in possibly wet conditions, with obstacles and sharp edges in close proximity.
By observing such issues, products have been developed to eliminate these risks, such as the swing out centre cutting unit or the retractable floor panel, making access to the centre unit easier and safer. This allows the operator/technician to work from a standing or kneeling position.
Products have been developed to reduce the time it takes to carry out daily maintenance tasks, such as refuelling. For example, by increasing the fuel filler size, products can be fuelled more cleanly and efficiently. Using such items as maintenance-free, sealed-for-life bearings reduces the number of items that need to be checked on a daily basis.
Knowing that products operate in harsh environments means that the need to check the air filter is inevitable. However, introducing a visual panel with a telltale indicator means that the filter does not have to be physically removed, saving time and reducing the potential to introduce debris.
In some areas, especially the latest generation of products, checking the machines operating functions has developed further with self monitoring systems checking such items as oil and coolant levels.
Some manufacturers have introduced electric drive motors to the cutting cylinders or are using alternative power systems that generate electricity to power a number of systems on the machine. This allows the use of electronics to monitor and control numerous functions and carry out detailed checks without the intervention of the operator.
The benefits of having a swing out unit have been mentioned previously in terms of improved access and operator safety. It also reduces the time it takes to adjust the reel to bottom blade and height of cut; keeping a cutting unit on cut or adjusting the height of cut to suit the grass conditions, will reduce the stress on the machine.
Another approach to increase productivity is to review transport time; this area is more critical to products that travel on the road or need to be transported by road. Manufacturers of modern mowers have increased safe transport speeds and, for those that are transported frequently, have been designed to fit common sized trailers and trucks with specific tie down points to reduce the chance of damage.
These are examples of how products have developed with operator comments and observations in mind. Many product developments often have multiple benefits; an example of this is road lighting kits that include an added safety aspect of brake lights that activate when the hydraulic circuit detects backpressure during dynamic braking. This warns vehicles behind that a machine is slowing down. As many machines are driven on the road and have to be self-sufficient all day, the need to carry supporting equipment has been identified. Some machines are now available with stowage racks to allow for items such as blowers to be carried.
Having briefly discussed the issues relating to daily checks and maintenance, it is also accepted that products need routine maintenance, thereby adding to non-productive down time.
Having the right service parts at the right time is key, but knowing when a service is due and looking up all the parts required is also time consuming.
Again, modern products have been developed that monitor operating time and inform the operator when a service is needed. They can also identify a list of all routine spares that will be required to carry this out.
Today's mowers are highly reliable, but there will be occasions when they will fail. A manufacturer will be judged on their ability to respond quickly and efficiently to this situation and resolve it as soon as possible. This has led to the creation of Product Support Managers, who are on hand to deliver technical knowledge and experience in such times of unscheduled down time. These are normally highly skilled individuals with vast product knowledge.
Product Development has reduced the number of components used in the manufacturing process and, in turn, reduced the number of components that fail and require repair or replacement. But, when they do fail, what is the most cost-effective method of replacement?
Do you fit genuine or after-market parts? Non-genuine parts will often be, at first sight, the cheaper option. However, by fitting genuine manufacturers' parts you maintain your warranty; you fit parts that have been manufactured to the same exacting standards as those used to build the machine and they will undoubtedly last longer. Do we know if this is true for non-genuine spares?
Today's mowers are complex machines and, undoubtedly, will be ever more so. Manufacturers will always strive to meet the turf maintenance industry's unmet needs and provide a comprehensive back-up service for the life of the machine.
Hopefully, this article has provided an insight into the roles of the product manager and the impact on product development. This is a vibrant industry with highly skilled turf professionals demanding products that help them maintain their working environments to the highest standards.
Grass will always grow and present challenges to those who care for it. As manufacturers, it is our role to continue to listen to the marketplace and then produce innovative solutions, as we have always done. That's our challenge.