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Sands Agricultural

Farming’s Future Vision


New design technology helps world-leading crop sprayer manufacturer cut design time by a quarter and slash production costs.


One August day in 1921, a retired World War I trainer aircraft – known as ‘Jenny’ – took to the skies over Dayton, Ohio, in an effort to thwart a new kind of enemy – the catalpha sphinx moth, which had largely defoliated extensive orchards. The successful ‘bombing’ of that site with a rather primitive pesticide proved to be the world’s first example of effective crop spraying.

07.11.08__003_390Large scale agricultural spraying didn’t develop until after the Second World War, when the US brought in DDT dust for pest control, and the practice – albeit with much safer chemicals – continues widely throughout the world. Often labouring under bad publicity, crop spraying has been the cornerstone of modern farming practices.

“Crop spraying is a bit of a misconception – everything a plant needs to grow – nitrogen, phosphate, trace elements – they can all be applied from a crop sprayer,” says Bari Cotter, Design and Technical Manager at Sands Agricultural Machinery, who is at pains to point out that pesticides are not the only compound distributed by his firm’s world-leading agricultural machines.

“Take a responsible farmer – and if he’s got a Sands machine, he’ll be a big farmer – he’ll have planned what crop is going in, he’ll know the nitrogen uptake of that crop and what else it’ll need to grow. So he’ll take a soil sample, to find out what’s in the ground, and then blend the fertiliser, trace elements and so on to suit that crop, which he then applies using a Sands crop sprayer,” he says.

Cotter goes on to explain that the farmer can take the appropriate nutrients and apply them prescriptively, on the move, to suit the soil and its needs, using a GPS-equipped Sands machine. Indeed, more than half of Sands’ crop sprayers are delivered equipped with such technology.

“We use GPS extensively,” says Cotter. “We can also use it to steer the machine – up and down the tramlines – you pass fields and see two rows where the wheels of the tractor go, they’re not random, they’re a specific width and they’re put in using GPS.”

24.11.08__001_390Aerial spraying in the UK was banned long ago, principally because of drift, but today, the UK sprays more than anywhere else in the world simply because it doesn’t have the land mass of other countries and so has to do more with less. It is perhaps for this reason that UK crop spraying technology leads the world – and Sands leads that charge.

Sands’ heritage dates back to 1939, when founder, Hubert Sands, started his own agricultural contracting company; later, serving on the War Agricultural Executive in the 1940s, he helped develop the breakthrough weed killer known as ‘corn land clearer’.

By the 1960s, he went on to specialise in crop spraying but was frustrated that the existing mounted sprayer, with a three foot (less than 3m) boom, would never carry enough water for economic operation. He decided to use a large tank, which he placed over the rear wheels of the tractor – positioning the driver in front – and thus his ‘forward control crop sprayer’ was born.

But what really marked Hubert Sands as an innovator was his eventual liberation of the crop sprayer from the confines of the tractor with the first self-propelled crop sprayer.

“The self propelled sprayer that Sands introduced in 1975 was the first of its kind and the biggest in the world,” says Cotter. “Crop sprayers used to be things that hung on the back of tractors or got pulled behind them. But the self propelled crop sprayer, with its own water and booms, was its own master,” he says.
Sands’ world-first machine had an 18 metre boom and could carry almost 2, 000 litres on board; today, the firm builds machines that carry up to 5,500 litres, distributed by booms up to 40 metres wide. They also have hydrostatic drive, load-sensing hydraulics, prime and purge technology and, despite ultra-high clearance, can travel at up to 40mph. “We’re the Rolls Royce of the crop sprayer world,” says Cotter, just to underscore the point.

The leap of thinking required to make this transition was an indicator of the innovative thinking amongst Sands’ owners and engineers and also of their willingness to embrace changes in design technology.
Like many manufacturers, Sands moved from the drawing board to CAD in the 1990s but it was the hype over the so-called ‘Millenium Bug’ that inadvertently pushed them over to Autodesk software.

15.01.09__002_390“The millennium bug frightened so many people in the late 1990s, including our IT manager, who said everything had to be windows-based, so we opted for Mechanical Desktop, an Autodesk product. But just after that, Inventor was released,” says Cotter, explaining how they persevered with 2D for several years until a new employee proved to be the catalyst for change.

“Paul Wooding, now head of Sands’ design office, had helped his previous firm to migrate from Mechanical Desktop to Inventor, pointing out the natural progression and significant cost savings inherent in using legacy data. “I brought some drawings with me – the situation here was very similar. Sands understood that the future of innovative mechanical design lay in 3D and was happy to make the move to Inventor,” says Wooding.

Autodesk Inventor provides a comprehensive set of tools for designing, producing and validating complete 3D digital prototypes of virtually any product. It helps designers to visualise, simulate and analyse how a design will look and how it will work under real-life conditions before a part is ever built.
Sands’ first task for Inventor was to redesign the booms on an already successful machine to make them easier to manufacture.

“The booms are the most critical part of the machine,” says Wooding. “When you’ve got a 30 or 40 metre boom, if you get the centre of gravity wrong – say you’ve used too thick a material on one side versus the other – the boom is going to be slightly slanted and you’ll always be compensating for that. That’s the danger of sub-contracting and it’s the reason all our booms are fully-built here, on our Norwich premises.”
Wooding led the initial process of redesigning and rationalising these booms, ensuring all the mechanisms operated correctly after the adaptations.

“If it’s easier to manufacture, it’s cheaper to manufacture and those savings can be passed onto our customers,” he says.

12.11.08__001_390“The first thing I did was to draw it all up in 3D so everyone could see, on screen, what was happening and where the strengths and weaknesses were. I suppose we could have done it in 2D but then we couldn’t have animated it or shown it working very effectively,” says Wooding.

Leveraging the digital prototyping capabilities of Inventor has enabled Sands to produce and fine-tune accurate 3D models of its designs before incurring production costs. It is helping them get their products to market faster and more cost-effectively and with more innovative designs.

“We gradually refined all the elements in Inventor – take the model for the cab, we could turn it around and look inside, check if we’ve got enough room, whether we could get the aircon fans in and progressively refine the model. Yes, I think you’d call that digital prototyping,” says Wooding.

Even Bari Cotter, who admits to being long in the tooth and brought up on the drawing board, is quick to acknowledge the advantages 3D can bring to communicating the designs amongst colleagues.
“Because I spent most of my life working in 2D, I can visualise a design from a 2D drawing, but it’s difficult to put over to someone who’s not an engineer and not conversant with 2D. The sales people, my MD, and others, they all wanted to see what things were going to look like and visualise how they would work. So that was a big selling point – being able to visualise the entire product in 3D, on screen, and see components move in 3D, that was a big step forward,” says Cotter.

Whilst Sands’ first task for Inventor was to refine an existing product, Cotter, Wooding and the team have gone on to create a new machine, from scratch, using 3D digital prototyping technology.

“It will be called the ‘Vision’ and it’s a totally new machine,” says Cotter. “The most obvious feature is the new cab design; a new seating position and new armrest controls. And it carries a new back-end boom suspension system. The whole machine has been created on Inventor and I would say it’s been done in a very short time.”

The Vision was designed in just nine months versus well over a year in the past. When you consider that Sands is shaving off a quarter of the usual design time and therefore cutting production costs on machines that cost up to £130,000 – and Sands manufactures an average of 40 per annum – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the maths.

Sands exports its crop sprayers all over the world, principally to New Zealand, but their machines are also to be found throughout eastern Europe – the Czech Republic, Latvia, Russia – where so many UK farm managers migrated to run the corporate farms over the last ten years and wanted to use the machines they knew.

15.12.08__001_390Sands was introduced to Inventor through Autodesk Authorised Reseller, Micro Concepts, which is local to their area. “They’re pretty good, I’ve got to say. I speak to them once a week, if I’ve got a problem, if there’s something particularly complex,” says Wooding.

The backup is particularly useful to Sands at this early stage, with only two seats of Inventor. As their design facility grows, the larger number of designers using the product tends to create an internal bank of expertise for cross pollination.

But today, Sands’ growth is not limited by vision or design capacity; rather more prosaically, it is limited by space.

“If there’s a large machine in the workshop with 36 metre booms hanging from it, it takes up one hell of a lot of space and it prohibits another machine being in the workshop at the same time. As a result, we have a two year waiting list,” says Cotter, explaining the growing demand for their products.

For the future, the firm is looking to purchase some land and build a bigger factory to keep up with demand. For now, it will rely on its innovative designers and their 3D software to speed its products to market.

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