Can You Hear Me Now?
Better Roads Staff
Customer feedback programs allow operators to play a larger role in equipment design and evolution.
After Gregg Perrett, owner and president of Valentine, Neb.-based Perrett Construction, tried for at least a year to give input to manufacturers about his experience operating their equipment — but to no avail — his opportunity finally arrived.
The store manager at Murphy Tractor in Nebraska, the dealership where Perrett is a customer, had given his name to Deere corporate when the manufacturer asked the dealership who would be good to be part of a group to provide input. Perrett was more than happy to oblige.
“I had tried for over a year to give input for other brands, but I felt like no one was receptive,” Perrett says. “I was excited to be part of this.”
Perrett met with a group in the Phoenix area and then several times in Iowa. The group provided input on equipment for nearly two years, providing significant feedback for Deere’s G-Series motor graders.
He says the focus group provided feefback on visibility, blades, side compartments, doors, panels, the longevity of hinges, cooling systems, how a ripper blade worked on the back of a machine, weight ratios, grade control, and fingertip controls for steering, among other current and proposed options.
“We provided a lot of input,” Perrett says, adding that his team of operator reviewers spent substantial time assisting Deere with fine-tuning slope control on a motor grader in a field south of Phoenix.
Perrett’s comments proved to be valuable. He doesn’t own a G-Series motor grader, but the manufacturer had him demo a prototype for several months. Data collected during this time was especially notable because Perrett was operating the machine without any preconceived expectations, and that allowed him to offer noteworthy feedback that influenced the final design of the G Series prototype.
“The fingertip steering was on the wrong side,” Perrett points out. “If you went to shift, the lever to control the steering and the steering wheel were [not in the right location]. You couldn’t shift and steer at the same time.”
Perrett’s input was used in the decision to move the fingertip steering to the left side of the machine. “We looked at a lot of little things like this,” Perrett says, noting that it’s often the “little things” that really matter when making a decision to buy or rent a particular machine. Visibility, machine control, and monitor placement are also some of those “little things,” Perrett says. “We worked a lot on that. We also worked on the machine control monitor and placement.”
The previous location of the monitor affected visibility, Perrett says. “But after working on it, we all agreed the monitor should be put above the steering wheel in the middle of the console,” he says. “We all had a sense of accomplishment. When you get manufacturers that come out and talk to the actual people who are running the machines to try to make them better, it really means a lot.”
A ‘Chatterbox’ of information
John Deere also uses its “Chatterbox” mobile recording studio, which the company introduced at ConExpo-Con/Agg 2011. The “box” is a trailer taken to job sites around the country. It is equipped with a small conference area, a video camera set-up similar to a small television studio, a refrigerator, and a recliner that comes complete with a machine joystick to add to operators’ comfort during the videotaped session where participants can sit back and answer pre-programmed questions and see their image on a screen. Categories for the user feedback change based on how a customer answers questions and based on the geographic location where the Chatterbox is taken. Deere says this system is how the company is able to give equipment operators a greater voice within Deere and throughout the industry and often provides provocative answers. (To see a YouTube video of first-time encounters with the Chatterbox, go to http://www.events.deere.com/youreon/chatterbox/.) Equipment operators are also able to submit comments at any time via the Chatterbox website at http://www.events.deere.com/youreon/mytake/. A monitoring system is in place so Deere is able to follow up with equipment operators, with both positive and negative comments, some of which ultimately lead to improvements to the machines.
‘They’re listening to us’
Case Construction Equipment has used its own set of operator “experts” to develop its Case N Series loader/backhoes. During the 18 months preceding the product line’s September 2010 introduction, Case enlisted operators from the United States and Canada to review equipment designs and test pre-production models of the new loader/backhoes in various applications and climate conditions. Dennis Zenter, owner of DRZ Contracting Ltd. in Delta, B.C., Canada, was one of six operators from North America asked to help evaluate the Case N Series. In the original prototype design, Zenter says his comments and those of the other evaluators were taken to heart. In the first iteration, a plunger-type piece on the rear window was about 6 inches around and detracted from visibility, Zenter says. He made it clear that it wasn’t a desirable feature. “From the original visit to the second visit, it was made smaller,” Zenter says. There is now a latch there, similar to a pocket and stud, which solved the problem. “I thought, ‘Great! They are actually listening to us!’”
As an owner and operator, Zenter says he is pleased that Case called operators in for the design critique: “Usually, a manufacturer builds the machine, puts it out in the marketplace, and says, ‘What do you think?’ We don’t get to have input. To be included in the process was top-notch. We suggested changes, and [Case] did its best to accommodate them.”
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