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Creative Process of Developing New Machinery

Sat December 11, 2010 - Midwest Edition
Giles Lambertson

A genuinely original construction machine is a rare piece of equipment. Infrequently introduced, they rock the market and then are upgraded, generation after generation, by the originating company and by competing manufacturers.

That was the story of the crawler dozer, for example. It was created by a pair of California machine-building companies that introduced the track propelling system for agricultural use at the turn of the last century. In 1925, the companies merged into Caterpillar Tractor Company. Manufacturers around the world have followed Caterpillar’s lead and produce branded machines that replicate the essential crawler design.

This process of invention, innovation and replication was repeated again and again during the 20th century as heavy construction developed into a fully mechanized industry. The fertile period produced such people as Vermont native, R.G. LaTourneau, who moved to the West Coast and eventually conceived numerous industry-changing designs. His new machines included the two-wheeled tractor unit for what LaTourneau called the Tournapull motorized scraper, an earth-moving machine that captured the industry’s imagination. LaTourneau went on to create the electric motor-drive system that continues to power heavy equipment today.

Another inventive New Englander of the period, Ralph H. Kress, earned the sobriquet, “Father of the Off-Highway Truck,” and left behind a legacy of heavy equipment of his design. In the mid-1950s, while working as a consultant for a company that became Komatsu, Kress came up with a 30-ton (27 t) dump truck with a deeply sloping, flat load area. It was called a HaulPak and became the standard for off-road haul trucks; in the mining industry, some trucks of HaulPak lineage have grown into 350-ton (317 t) behemoths.

Original pieces of construction equipment — the first of their kind — are as uncommon as original thoughts. They result from creative brainstorms that cartoonists have illustrated forever by drawing a switched-on light bulb over the head of the creator.

A Compact Self-Propelled Loader

Such a moment occurred just more than 50 years ago to two brothers who had grown up on a farm in western Minnesota.

Louis and Cyril Keller were blacksmiths in the rural town of Rothsay, Minn. One winter day in 1957 a large turkey producer groused to them about the difficulty of cleaning turkey dung from the second floor of his barns. The brothers mulled the problem, sketched out a small three-wheel motorized scooper design and took it to the turkey farmer. He agreed to buy it — if they built it and it actually worked.

Six weeks later, the Keller brothers delivered the lightweight loader with a pivoting rear wheel that could pirouette in the tight confines of a barn. Within the month, the delighted farmer paid off and the brothers fabricated six more of the machines they were calling the “Keller Self-Propelled Loader.”

The little machine caught the eye of Lester Melroe, an agriculture equipment manufacturer in nearby Gwinner, N.D., who suggested the Kellers show off the loader at the company booth at the Minnesota State Fair. The brothers did — to immense public interest — and Melroe promptly bought the rights to the new machine.

Thus was the Bobcat skid steer machine given birth, even though it was not yet a Bobcat nor a true skid steer. It nevertheless was the forerunner of a machine that has established a whole new subset of compact construction equipment, leading Fortune Magazine to list it among the Top 100 American-made products in the world.

How did two World War II veterans — one served as a cook, the other as a mechanic — with eighth-grade educations pull off such an impressive feat? They were inventive.

“Inventors come in all shapes, sizes, genders and races. I’m not sure it is in their DNA, but the question is often asked, are they born or made? The answer is yes to both of them,” said Eric Hintz, historian of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, a wing of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The 15-year-old center exists to document information about inventors and inventiveness and to encourage its development. It accomplishes this through preservation of records, public exhibits and seminars.

“You can’t stereotype inventors as quirky, or reclusive or a little idiosyncratic,” the historian said. His observation rings true. The above-mentioned LaTourneau — like the Kellers — was totally unlettered, for example, while Kress was a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“What we typically find,” Hintz continued, “is an inclination to tinker with mechanical or electrical things. They go to the junkyard and find something and take it apart and put it back together. You read all these stories about future inventors taking apart clocks and watches. They are fascinated by the mechanical.”

Imagining the Future

The disassembly and reassembly habit today surely includes electronic and biological tinkerers, just as inventive souls a thousand years ago were fascinated by wood and rock utilizations. In every case, Hintz said, the other characteristic trait is that they “don’t often subscribe to the status quo. If you are going to invent something novel, you have to be able to imagine a world we don’t have right now and to be willing to swim across the flow. Inventors tend to be contrarian.”

Joe Keller would agree. The son of Louis Keller and nephew of Cyril Keller said his father and uncle possessed the traits Hintz describes along with a stubbornness born of vision.

“You could just see the determination in them when someone else said it couldn’t be done,” Keller said. “I remember Dad saying, ’I am just as sure that it will work as you are that it won’t work, so I’m going to do it.’ For some reason, an inventive person is able to see how something might work and doesn’t give up the first time it fails to work.”

The self-propelled loader wasn’t the first Keller bright idea. Louis Keller dreamed up the first augur-style snowblower and sold it for production. Nor were Louis and Cyril the only inventive ones in the family. Another brother patented a bi-fold door. A cousin of Joe Keller’s has developed crop-spraying rigs. Joe Keller himself is a 3M engineer. The family’s make-it-yourself farmstead heritage continues to produce original thinking.

As for the Keller’s loader, it was reasonably successful. However, the brothers soon learned that while the rear castor wheel on the machine worked well on hard surfaces like barn floors, in muddy feedlots it bogged down. Its utility thus limited, sales never really took off. In response, the brothers simply re-invented the machine as a four-wheel drive loader.

“I don’t know which one had the first idea,” the younger Keller said. “I guess I never asked. But they both knew it would work.”

Joe Keller does recall the moment his father came up with the basic concept for the machine’s novel drive.

“He was just sitting at home one night and the picture of the drive came to him very clear. It was the way to get forward and reverse movement just by moving a lever forward and back, and to have brakes and everything all in your hands. When they sketched it up the next day, Cyril probably offered modifications that made it more workable. Their first patent on the machine was on the drive.”

Another patent was on the new model’s novel 70-30 weight distribution, depending upon whether the front bucket was loaded or not. Loaded, the new skid steer machine pivoted and skidded around on its front tires; empty, it pivoted and skidded on its back tires. A company publicist noted how, like a bobcat, the little machine was tough and nimble, so Melroe christened it a Bobcat.

The basic skid steer loader has become an iconic machine and adapted for numerous other applications. It is found now not only on turkey farms and elsewhere in agriculture, but in construction, landscaping and materials handling settings and sometimes in backyards where hobbyists drive it around, mostly just for fun.

In its 50th anniversary year, Bobcat produced machine number 750,000 in Gwinner. The North Dakota company has gone international, passing through several hands before being purchased by South Korea’s Doosan Infracore.

All of this is not bad for a couple of unschooled Midwestern blacksmiths, one of whom, Louis, died in July at age 87. Two of the early models of the loader that Louis Keller helped invent were used to backfill his grave.

A Two-Step Inventive Process

Hintz, the Lemelson Center’s historian, sees successful invention as a two-step process. First is the essential original idea, followed by taking the idea to production.

“I think the main requirement is the idea, the mental piece, the act of successful tinkering,” Hintz said. “Then comes innovation, how you take it to the marketplace. There’s a big difference in the two. The second part takes a lot of concerted effort — patent lawyers, marketing, selling, servicing, that’s the real tough part. There are a lot of good people out there with a lot of good ideas but how many make it into production?”

The John Deere 764 HSD is one original thought that reached production.

In 2009, Deere & Company capped a 7-year development of its idea and introduced the fast-moving dozer.

It began as a general proposition in the mind of a John Deere research and development engineer, Dan Radke. Radke’s conception, in turn, was a direct response to an equipment need voiced by Deere customers. As with the Kellers in Minnesota 50 years before, customer complaints spawned fresh thinking. Of course, Deere had a whole R&D department to develop and market the idea, whereas the Keller siblings only had each other. Yet in both cases, collaboration contributed to the success of an original concept.

“We have several customer groups come in quite often to talk about things that hinder them from getting jobs done,” said Thomas Porter, a senior engineer in Deere’s R&D department and the man who shepherded Radke’s idea into production.

“In this case, through our customers we found there was an issue with machine utilization.”

The essential complaint was that too many heavy pieces of equipment are idle too long between periods of use. Having expensive assets like bulldozers sitting around instead of pushing dirt is not cost-effective.

Repeated discussions with the contractors and equipment suppliers narrowed down the need for a piece of equipment like the 764. They said they wanted a dozer that, when used in areas of residential construction, could be employed on one side of a newly paved street and then the other side without having first to lay down rubber or wood buffers to protect the pavement. Hence, rubber treads.

The customers wanted a dozer that, like a motorgrader, didn’t have to be transported from place to place on a large job site. Bone-jarring rides on clanking dozers at 6 miles per hour was not part of their vision. Hence, gearing for faster speeds.

They wanted a dozer with more usability in tight quarters than the only current alternative, a motorgrader. Hence, an agile machine with a tighter turning circumference.

“The industry has had some standard machines for years,” Porter said, “and contractors have made do with what they’ve had. They have found a way to make those machines work. But the cost of moving dirt is going up and the money the contractors are getting for moving the dirt is about the same, so the customers came to us and asked if there wasn’t a better way.”

In the period between 2002-04, Deere built on the original Radke concept — listening to contractors, building prototypes, sending them out for testing on work sites, evaluating and introducing variations, putting together a machine with the speed of a grader and the floatation of a dozer.

Customer reactions to prototypes were encouraging and kept the process moving, Porter recalled.

“Some of the contractors would scratch their heads and say, ’What in the world can you do with that?’” he said. “They they’d try it out and you couldn’t get them out of it ’Hey, it can do this and it can do that,’ they’d say, and the ideas kept coming.”

Creation was a process of trial and error, Porter said, and was conducted quite openly, with uncovered machines trucked around the country for testing. Other manufacturers didn’t seem to notice.

“It was hidden in plain sight,” quipped the 45-year-old engineer.

Indeed, when finally introduced at an equipment exposition in 2008, the 764 HSD seemed to catch the industry by surprise.

“It still is pretty unique,” said Porter. “Nobody has tried to copy it yet. From what we are hearing, it is a one-of-a-kind.”

The completed design features articulated steering via two rubber-tracked drive assemblies on each side, a panoramic up-close view of the front blade, hitches and hydraulics for pulling implements, gearing that lets it perform GPS finish-grade operations at speeds unheard of using traditional bladed machines and travel speeds of up to 16 miles per hour.

While the 764 HSD incorporates 13 patented systems, 60 percent of the machine is comprised of parts pulled off the John Deere machinery shelf, Porter said — old technology used in a new way, proof that invention need not mean whole cloth fabrication.

Deere’s new machine was introduced just as economic collapse shrank the market, so the real test of the 764’s appeal awaits the return of economic vigor in the construction industry. Porter is convinced that once building activity resumes in earnest, sales of the machine that he helped bring to fruition will take off.

As for how the idea was received by other heavy equipment manufacturers, Porter believes they are in a “sit and wait mode to see how the industry receives the 764. I think they are going to watch us for a while. I know we certainly don’t plan to quit selling it.”

Porter has been on the engineering staff of Deere for 19 years, most of it in the area of four-wheel-drive wheel loaders.

“That was my career until I was asked to come and lead this project. This is my first time at looking at anything brand new.”

It might be his last. It doesn’t happen often at any company.

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