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Published January 20, 2014, 10:29 AM

ND technology company benefits from family expertise

What do you get when you add Appareo Systems LLC and Amity Technology LLC? Intelligent Agricultural Solutions.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — What do you get when you add Appareo Systems LLC and Amity Technology LLC?

Intelligent Agricultural Solutions.

IAS is a new company brand that draws on the heritage of the two Fargo, N.D., manufacturing companies, advancing the Red River Valley agricultural manufacturing heritage. Launched in 2011 to release a Wireless Blockage Monitor for seed implements, IAS started its foray into the market with new sensors that use acoustic technology on the manifolds of air seeders and link the results to iPad monitors.

The IAS brand is a brainchild of families who have ag equipment manufacturing in their blood, with histories in Bobcat, Steiger Tractor, ITS Inc., Concord, Amity and Phoenix International.

Barry Batcheller, 63, is chairman and CEO of Appareo Systems, and his son, David Batcheller, 30, is chief operating officer. Appareo has grown to 120 employees. The company has engineers in Tempe, Ariz., and Paris, France, and employs more than 60 engineers of various types, making it one of the biggest independent companies working in agricultural electronics.

Appareo does all of the design and manufacturing work for IAS in Fargo, as well as aviation and its own custom work separately. Amity Technology is most involved in testing, marketing and sales of IAS products.

“Today, as I look at the landscape out there, we’re rapidly becoming one of the largest agricultural electronics companies in North America,” Barry says. And he would know.

Alex Warner, president and CEO of Pedigree Technologies LLC, a Fargo-based entrepreneur in the machine-to-machine technology area both in agriculture and oil, says Barry took time to mentor him a decade ago when he was starting out with a fledgling company employing college students. Pedigree now employs 60 people and has plans for growth in the coming year.

“He’s an extraordinary engineer who’s been able to apply his talents to all of the disciplines required of an entrepreneur,” Warner says. “He’s solid, 360-degrees a businessman, every piece you need to be a comprehensive businessman. That’s Barry — extremely solid and consistent.” And Warner says David seems to be carrying those qualities forward.

Storied family legacy

Barry grew up in Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island. He came to North Dakota State University to study electronics engineering. In 1976, he worked for IDA Corp., an electronics design and manufacturing company. He graduated from NDSU in 1977 and soon became an electrical engineer for Steiger Tractor Co. in Fargo. He married Julien Johnson, who is from a farm in the Ada, Minn., area.

Steiger was then based in Fargo, the region’s signature maker of high-horsepower, “neon chartreuse” equipment, initially built in farm shops in the Red Lake Falls and Thief River Falls, Minn., area.

At Steiger, Barry became vice president of engineering and acquired the first of 20 patents he holds. There, he is credited with designing the world’s first computer tractor with its power-pulse control system. In 1984, Steiger spun off Batcheller’s electronics engineering group as Integrated Technical Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary, based in Valley City, N.D.

In June 1986, beset by slumping world tractor sales, Steiger filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company (including ITS) was sold to Case IH. Today, CNH Inc. continues to build large, four-wheel-drive tractors and wheel loaders in Fargo, retaining the iconic Steiger name for its models.

Steiger’s refugees

Barry initially stayed with Case IH, but left and joined Steiger “refugees” in 1987 and went on to found Phoenix International Corp. Batcheller served as its president and CEO. Phoenix specialized in designing and manufacturing specialized “ruggedized electronics” for agriculture and construction equipment. Deere & Co. was one of its primary customers. In 1999, Deere & Co. acquired Phoenix and Barry became director of technology growth for John Deere.

Barry had launched Appareo in 2001 and left Deere and in 2005. Appareo — pronounced a-PAH-reo and Latin for “to become visible” — had become more active in 2003. It initially was housed in a succession of buildings in the NDSU Research and Technology Park, and now is in its own Batcheller Technology Center, with property leased from NDSU.

Initially, Barry didn’t work in agriculture. He focused on aerospace, defense and transportation applications of consumer electronics and 3-D graphic software. David joined the company in 2005.

On Amity’s board

In late 2006, Barry joined the board of Amity Technology, a company led by brothers Howard and Brian Dahl. The Dahls are grandsons of E.G. Melroe, who developed the Bobcat loader. Their father was Eugene Dahl, the last chairman of the board of Steiger Tractor and a former top executive for Melroe.

In the late 1980s, the Dahl brothers had founded Concord Inc., a pioneer manufacturer in air seeding equipment that would transform the region’s agriculture.

Howard marketed their machines in the former Soviet Union and in 1996, sold Concord to Case Corp. With the proceeds from that sale, they started Amity Technology, which made sugar beet harvesting and air seeding equipment, and later became a partner with Wil-Rich LLC, in Wahpeton, N.D.

In 2011, Amity formed a partnership on its air seeders with AGCO, the nation’s third-leading ag equipment dealer, giving Amity air seeders worldwide marketing exposure under the Sunflower brand.

Developing IAS, monitors

The Batchellers and the Dahls started talking about challenging customer service issues for Amity. They decided to focus on monitoring systems, where 80 percent of the problems had to do with wiring.

“They told us they spent more time chasing issues with after-market additions than they did with issues with the actual machine,” David says. So Appareo and Amity created the IAS joint venture, each company owning 50 percent.

A typical machine is used for two seasons in a year — spring seeding and then winter wheat seeding or fall-fertilizer.

Monitoring systems are important features of planters and drills. Grain drills include a disk, shank or knife that creates furrows in the ground. A metering system takes seed or fertilizer from a cart and a fan blows the product through the system. The product goes through a manifold and the tubing runs get smaller toward the end.

“You want to look at all of these runs — you want to make sure you’re getting product into the ground, down every row, down every section all of the time,” David says.

A new, wireless option

Early monitoring systems in air seeders used small “fingers” in the air stream — mechanically actuated. But the fingers had elastic life limits and eventually would wear out.

In the late 1970s, companies started introducing “touchless sensor” optical systems, where blockages were picked up by cameras or beams of light and receptors. These remain the most common today, but they are subject to dirt and fertilizer blockage. Both finger and optical systems were electrical-based, with power, ground and signal wires to every run.

“If I have 128 runs and three wires per sensor, there are a lot of wires running around this tool bar,” David says.

That means there are lots of opportunities to kink or strip wires when folding equipment, and increased chances of rodent damage in storage.

“It can be like the ‘Christmas tree phenomenon’ where one light goes out and the whole string goes out,” David says.

Appareo engineers developed an acoustic-based system that looks and acts like a stethoscope. Engineers had to study the correct thickness of the stainless steel membrane and the sponginess of the rubber around it. They identified an “audio response” apart from ambient noise, and sorted the difference between flow and flow volume.

Now Appareo’s technology has only one electronic run bringing power to an electronic control unit (EDU), and one ECU per manifold.

“Let’s say you have four sections on a 40-foot drill: now you have only four electronic things instead of 48,” David says. “And now this is transferring data wirelessly, using wifi, rather than moving low-voltage signals around a piece of agricultural equipment.”

“What Appareo has done with the commercialization of their technology in the aviation world is phenomenal,” says Dean Gorder, executive director of the North Dakota Trade Office in Fargo, who also is a pilot. “They’ve reduced costs and broadened their tools, and now they’re applying some of that same diligence in agriculture.”

Gorder describes Barry as a visionary. “He’s a creative thinker,” Gorder says. “He has an ability to come up with the idea that others wish they would have thought of. There’s a narrow spectrum of the population that has that ability.”

He says the company seems to have the ability to create products with perceived value and get them to a price point where they’re saleable and scalable.

Enter: the iPad

For a display, the IAS team chose the iPad, which came out in 2010.

“I can have a display that I can use in-season, or download other agronomy applications on, or can check my email, watch Netflix, read podcasts, read ag news,” David says. “From our perspective, the iPad is actually cheaper for us or the customer to acquire than a purpose-built agricultural, industrial display — and not by a little bit. It has 52 weeks of utility, rather than seven weeks of utility.”

iPads are durable and become even more durable with protective cases.

“If we needed to roll an update to the field because over the course of time we found a bug in our system, or wanted to improve it, we don’t have to send dealers to every single customer; we can put new software in the app store and update all of the devices in the field all at once.”

Worldwide customers

IAS was an option on Amity-AGCO drills in 2011 and was the only option for Amity in 2012 and since.

“We sell more in the after-market now than we do directly to original equipment manufacturers,” David says. “In the after-market, we’re on just about everything.”

Dealers or farmers themselves can install them. It costs roughly $100 per run, so a typical 40-foot drill with four manifolds would cost $6,000 to $7,000.

There are hundreds, soon to be thousands, of the systems working all over the country and into Canada — Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Appareo has some eastern and northern European customers, as well as Australian. David says the company is very support-oriented.

“We like to get the calls, like to get our feet dirty in the field.”

Test customers this year ranged from canola and oilseed farmers, to those with wheat and then co-op fertilizer applicators.

Risky business

The trend toward personal electronics devices will continue because developers are putting so much more money into research than agriculture companies could ever afford for dedicated devices.

Appareo recently has changed some of the “fill” for rigidity of its plastics. It has teamed up with a Fargo company that strengthens plastic using treated agricultural waste products, such as sunflower hulls.

“Those are ground up, treated, and are added to Appareo’s plastics to give them strength and rigidity,” David says, adding that it’s good to stay connected to the advancements at the university.

The Batchellers believe innovation in agricultural equipment has slowed, partly because large manufactures have bought out or embedded themselves in companies they used to compete with.

“Now, you’re moving at the pace of the company you’re part of,” says David, a University of Minnesota political science graduate who joined the company in 2006.

While IAS is confident in its product, innovation in the open market is expensive and uncertain, David says.

“Everything we make in IAS, we put back into it,” he says. “The idea is to take a big swing.”