Course visit after course visit, the message that Brad Aldridge and the rest of the John Deere product team heard from superintendents and directors remained remarkably consistent. I can’t keep equipment operators in this job market, some said. My job applicants are always down and my openings are always open, others said.

Labor is my biggest challenge, everybody said.

John Deere listened, and on Tuesday morning, on the edge of a broad field at the company’s demo site in Coal Valley, Ill., not far from headquarters in neighboring Moline, announced an acquisition and a series of new products all designed to address the industry’s ongoing labor issues — including an autonomous mower demonstration that elicited audible surprise from a crowd of more than five dozen superintendents from around the world.

First, the acquisition. After more than two years as partners, John Deere formally acquired OnLink, the cloud-based golf course management platform that enables courses to college data and manage equipment, chemicals, nutrients, water, playing conditions and, of course labor. Manny Gan, the director of global golf sales and marketing for John Deere, described the acquisition as an opportunity to “continue developing the platform with the data knowledge we’ve already built.” The analytics, of course, are designed for more efficient planning and maintenance.

John Deere purchased the platform and existing service agreements for an undisclosed amount. The company itself and current employees will not be folded into John Deere after an initial transition, according to OnLink founder and CEO Walt Norley.

The company also introduced new autonomous technology outfitted on an existing 7500 Precision Cut mower — highlighted by a Starfire receiver. Much like autonomous robots have allowed manufacturers to shift workers from traditional labor to more specialized tasks, the autonomous mowers are designed to allow superintendents to reallocate their crew, product manager Brooks Hastings said.

“If you take those (man) hours and reallocate them,” Hastings says, “what does that do for you? Everybody has their laundry list. … We’re proposing that this will help with that list.”

The autonomous mowers will be programmed with initial help from dealers, Hastings said, with the length of that first round of programming depending on the size, layout and goals for each course. “The thing we’re finding,” Hastings said, “is after that initial training and going through it, they latch on to it very easily. It’s not like you’re coding 0s and 1s.”

John Deere also demoed a new GPS PrecisionSprayer that was introduced at the Golf Industry Show in January and has been in testing for close to a year. That technology is highlighted by AutoTrac, which helps more quickly and more accurately spray predetermined areas, and is now available off the shelf. Some of the testers have reported fuel savings as great as 30 percent, Hastings says.

“As long as you have your boundaries mapped, it knows where it should spray,” he says. “It could be pitch dark and it’s still going to operate. The nozzles will still activate when they cross a border. You obviously have to have an operator in the seat but it still widens the window.”

Finally, the company showed off new triplex mowers — the 2700 and 2750 E-Cut Hybrid models — that are designed to more consistently mow from operator to operator. The programmable touchscreen display allows for control over frequency of clip, turn speed, transport speed, lift and lower rate, and cutting unit timing, and includes cleanup pass mode along with an eco mode that can drop RPMs and boost fuel economy.

“A lot of these guys have never been on a piece of equipment before,” Aldridge says. “So the superintendent sets it up, says, ‘This is the way I want you to mow,’ and all they really do is drive the machine. The machine’s taking care of everything else. They don’t have to think, ‘Well, when I turn, I need to slow down,’ because the machine automatically slows down.

“It really kind of dummy-proofs it for the operator, and the superintendent knows every machine they set up is doing the exact same thing.”

The minimum wage has bumped up in 19 states this year, with increases in a dozen states next year, and the labor challenge will continue to confound for the foreseeable future. These are more options in the search for a solution.

Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.

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