When Georg Kormann wants to see the future he often leaves his office, drives to a nearby field, gets in the cab of a piece of John Deere equipment, and waits for frustration to set in.
He'll admit it's an odd mixture of emotions — the excitement of working on what's next blended with the anticipation of being annoyed.
He'll also tell you it's how he does some of his best work.
"This is where many ideas come from," Kormann, engineering manager for hay and forage Advanced Engineering and Tech Integration, said. "I get in the cab and think. A customer using our equipment should have the same objective as I'm having sitting there because the purpose of the machine and what the customer wants to do stay the same, no matter the job."
So, it's here, in this cab, in this field, in this frame of mind that he envisions a simpler existence.
"We need an automation to setup automation features," the 2021 Fellow Award winner said. "Technology can get too complex. Our role is to make technology easily usable, to make it manageable."
It's that thought that leads him to what he considers the simplest of solutions, something Kormann references as only one button to start and a green light — signaling all is good. He calls it "one button go."
"Think about it this way, the customer arrives at the field and works through our display, pressing button after button. If it's AutoTrac. Then selecting the right field, selecting the crop, the right variety, the depth, and downforce. It's been automated and it is very helpful for our customer. But it's also so many buttons. What if it were just one button," he asks. "The button that remembers everything."
It's taken years, and multiple isolated trips, to get to this spot. It's given Kormann an appreciation for what customers want, expect, and even demand. And he started learning it all when he was 10.
Working on his uncle's small farm in Bavaria allowed Kormann to see "the full story of food production." Crops and livestock were raised to support a family restaurant attached to the farm and grains were grown to sell to another family member's flour mill.
"We butchered meat right inside my uncle's house," Kormann said. "Everything on that farm ended up somewhere nearby. What I learned there drives my thinking today. I saw then that I was part of a chain. I'm not a single piece but I'm part of an integrated solution that enables a production system."
Making it all work, in the eyes of a boy, was the equipment. "It fascinated me," Kormann said. He told his uncle he wanted to build farm machinery when he grew up.
"This was always the piece that made me move forward," he said. "I was always thinking about how can I do it better? How can I do it smarter? And how can I do it easier? And that still goes with me today."
Kormann begins any problem-solving endeavor by first seeing the big picture — "what does a farmer need to successfully run his whole operation" — and then building it one piece at a time. He is known for taking theoretical knowledge and putting it into practical applications. And where does one learn to do that?
"With Legos," he said. "Legos taught me how to come up with solutions one block at a time."
While the concept of blocks — building a foundation — is easy to follow it's when Kormann transitions to sensors, GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) guidance, and the layering of technology that a person can get lost. Kormann and his teams have expanded Deere's use of GNSS while also using near-infrared sensing — something he calls the "door opener" for automation and quality control — to get a more complete view of a customer's environment.
"Our teams and our customers are both very high-end users of GNSS technology," he said. "It all starts there for us. That's where many of the solutions are."
Kormann said GNSS first was used for documentation, then guidance, and now more and more for automation. Originally, he said, when GNSS was put on tractors it was to identify location. The second layer was the second receiver, which John Deere put on the implement. The third layer was extrapolating to individual row units on planters and "that allowed us to know exactly where each seed was."
There is, Kormann added, a "next step" in this innovation evolution.
"Sensor fusion systems will tie together our GNSS with our cameras, with vision, with lidar. Because," he explained," while GNSS gives us an absolute position in the field it has no idea about our environment. And that's something we want to provide our customers. Something we need to prove to our customers."
And proving, well, that's happening 24 hours a day — every day.
"Making sure our global positioning system does what we say it does is the vital backbone to everything we do," Kormann said. "We have a robotic arm on the roof of our building as a reference system. It's a way for us to verify and prove that what we are saying is actually happening. With each software update and new receiver we build we need to test and make sure we're still accurate to distances we say we are. The robot allows us to do that. We've had that for 10 years."
Kormann loves talking technology and whenever it enters the conversation he shifts in his chair and leans forward, working to close the virtual gap and make a connection.
And, like any good communicator, Kormann reads body language and facial expressions. He can see when he's losing his audience.
He knows this world — his world -- can be complex, which causes him to use props and analogies to help make his point. First, he links his vision to fruit, bananas specifically. He'll tell you not everyone sees technology the same equating it to the ripeness of fruit.
Kormann then takes the thought to another level and this is what makes him, well, him.
"There are people who like green bananas and others who like brown bananas and then there are those that don't even know it's a banana yet," he said.
Now he searches his desk, reaching for a prop — a child's red plastic donut. This becomes an impromptu satellite as he explains how the robotic arm serves a purpose for guidance, the evolution of precision agriculture, and how best to use sensor readings.
As he connects the necessary dots, it becomes clear that Kormann's personality can bring internal conflict. He describes himself as impatient — "just ask my kids" — but he also lives a job where the need for solutions requires answers that are years away.
This brings us back to "one button go" — the next banana and perhaps the epitome of how his mind works. He likens the concept to driving a car and using a smartphone, at the same time.
"You know, it used to be that we'd say using a smartphone hindered our driving. Now, through more advanced technology, we say driving is hindering our use of the smartphone. That's what helped lead us to autonomous vehicles. We need to be more productive, and driving is no longer productive," he said.
Being productive is something Kormann understands is critical for customers and appreciates in his own professional development.
"If you show the desire to learn this company will help put you in the right places to grow," he said. Kormann cites his expat assignment to the United States and a Deere program he called "innovation camps" that brought employees from around the world together to spend two weeks in another country with dealers and customers.
"The platform of opportunity has always been big at John Deere," Kormann said. "Investing in people is something that continues to separate this company from others."
That investment has certainly paid off. As Deere's Integrated Solutions Fellow, Kormann sees the flow and arc of a career centered on building trust and creating partnerships. Both things, he said, were learned through a lifetime of playing team sports -- especially through years of competitive rock climbing and volleyball.
It's a concept that takes him back to his uncle's farm, a reminder that as a child he wanted to work on all types of machinery and create simple solutions for the people using them.
So, naturally, then the Fellows recognition created a time for reflection and his thoughts on the future.
"The Fellows is a validation and respect of my work. And I've come to realize it's amazing how much visibility you, in the end, have in the company," he said. "It's really good to realize that there are enough people who really have that broad view within the engineering community to see the contributions of others."
But, Kormann added, reflecting can impede progress.
"I think that the important piece is to have a healthy mixture between looking back and forward. But you must keep moving forward and trying the impossible, because what maybe appears impossible today might be possible tomorrow. You always need something in your life that makes you get up every morning and makes you move."
Yes, he's proud of the equipment he set out as a boy to make better. He credits the numerous global teams he's been a part of in helping make more precise, more automated, and easier to use machines. He said there's nothing quite like walking the floor of a trade show and seeing that hard work on display for the world to see. "It is the proud part of an engineer's life," he said with a smile.
But it's not only the equipment that will help make his legacy. He played a key role in designing the European Technology Innovation Center (ETIC) in Kaiserslautern, Germany. From the infusion of natural light to the positioning of meeting rooms and innovation space, Kormann had his fingerprints on it all — from the ground to, yes, the roof.
"I told them I needed a place for my robot," he said.
It seems a little ironic in the end. A building with offices and meeting spaces.
Because if we've learned anything it's that Kormann doesn't need that. Not really.
He's fine being in the field, in a cab, with a problem to solve.