John Deere Accelerates Manufacturing Innovation With Private 5G

By Will Townsend, Patrick Moorhead - April 7, 2024

I recently toured two John Deere facilities in the heart of the American Midwest. The company traces its roots back to 1837, when its namesake, a blacksmith, developed the first self-scouring steel plow, which revolutionized farming at the time. Fast-forward almost 190 years, and John Deere continues to innovate on many fronts.

Visiting the company’s Tractor & Engine Museum and its 5G-connected factory—both in Waterloo, Iowa—were eye-opening experiences. In this piece I’ll talk about how the company is leveraging cellular connectivity to enable automation and autonomy in its iconic green-and-yellow vehicles, as well as using 5G to unlock efficiencies within the factories that produce them.

Modern Manufacturing, Powered By 5G

One might not immediately associate an agrarian brand like John Deere with cutting-edge technology, but that would be a mistake. The company has opened research facilities and labs in Iowa as well as tech hotspots including Austin and San Francisco. Furthermore, Deere acquisitions such as Blue River Technology are bringing together smart people and technologies such as computer vision, machine learning, AI and cloud-native infrastructure to revolutionize farming operations. Add in Deere’s significant research and development spending—in the billions of dollars annually—and you’re looking at an impressive commitment to making agriculture smarter.

The same could be said for Deere’s early recognition of the power of private 5G communications. In 2020, the company began its 5G deployment journey by procuring dedicated spectrum licenses through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, managed by the OnGo Alliance. Not wanting to be dependent on a third party for the design, deployment and operation of its cellular network, Deere chose to build an internal team of network engineers to work with Nokia. They did their initial work in record time, requiring only an astounding six weeks to stand up a production network. From my perspective, both the decision to field an in-house team and the jaw-droppingly fast execution that followed speak volumes about the company’s confidence in its technical chops and its desire to accelerate vertical integration of its manufacturing processes.

The manufacturing use cases that are benefiting from Deere’s investment in a private 5G network are noteworthy. To date, the company has deployed more than 100 automated guided vehicles controlled via 5G to move engines, drivetrains, cabs, wheels and other parts within the assembly process. Computer vision, leveraging 5G’s ultra-low latency and fast data throughput, is used to inspect welds for quality control as well as monitor worker safety. Last but certainly not least, 5G connectivity is enabling Deere to improve its assembly-line processes. It can help with focused tasks such as wirelessly measuring torque levels on power tools to ensure optimal workflows, and it can be applied on a broader scale to reconfigure assembly lines in hours rather than days or weeks to maximize operational efficiency.

Why 5G Instead Of Wi-Fi?

One might ask why John Deere has chosen 5G cellular connectivity over Wi-Fi and its accompanying “free” underlying unlicensed spectrum. The answer to that question is multifold. 5G cellular connectivity is inherently more deterministic than Wi-Fi, given smoother handoffs from radio to radio. 5G can also support a vastly greater number of devices per radio—Deere reports up to 800 per radio within its private 5G cellular network. This contrasts with the company’s prior experience, in which a single Wi-Fi access point handled only 50 devices. In operational technology environments like Deere’s, industrial IoT deployments dramatically expand the number of devices that connect to a network for scenarios such as predictive maintenance; the economics associated with Wi-Fi densification to address these needs quickly escalate beyond what’s affordable. As a bonus, 5G’s architectural design also provides an improved security posture over Wi-Fi in the form of enhanced encryption. That’s an important consideration, given the vulnerabilities that often result from the expanded attack surface typically associated with large IoT deployments.

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Beyond its technical and security superpowers, 5G’s fiber-like throughput and latency profile offer flexibility when it comes to installation and access. For example, it’s often impractical to run Ethernet to cranes, hoists and overhead connected devices such as smart cameras—yet it’s easy to connect these using 5G. Furthermore, cellular spectrum can propagate over larger expanses, both indoors and out, providing dependable connectivity for objects in motion. This is especially relevant for manufacturing workflows such as yard management, drive audits, rollover testing and trailer tracking.

Wrapping Up

From my perspective, John Deere is leaning into 5G to gain a competitive advantage in producing some of the most technically advanced, safe and reliable agricultural implements to help feed the world. It’s an endeavor that solidly reflects the company’s core values of integrity, quality, commitment and innovation.

5G’s deployment flexibility, high-speed throughput and ultra-low latency is clearly unlocking new value for Deere by improving its ability to process data, perform analytics and provide actionable insights in near real-time to optimize its manufacturing processes. The company is an early trailblazer in its use of cellular connectivity to accelerate its digital transformation journey and modernize its manufacturing processes, and other world-class manufacturers should consider the same.

Will Townsend
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Will Townsend manages the networking and security practices for Moor Insights & Strategy focused on carrier infrastructure providers, carrier services, enterprise networking and security. He brings over 30 years of technology industry experience in a variety of product, marketing, channel, business development and sales roles to his advisory position.

Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.