Chipperfield's small business growth is (un)real

As Kurt Chipperfield lays out his career at John Deere, he hits on a premise that neatly captures his impact over 20 years with the company. Chipperfield, you see, is really a small business owner. Well, OK, not exactly.

Kurt Chipperfield
Kurt Chipperfield

What the staff engineer has done is adopt a mindset around virtual reality (VR) at John Deere Dubuque Works to not only grow the company’s presence in VR but find additional ways to support that growth through new ventures that all tie back to one overarching goal: get customers to help shape the next evolution of construction and forestry equipment in the most efficient way possible.

Dubuque’s VR lab – the heart of his small business – is a place where concepts thrive, and needs are met. It’s out of the lab that Chipperfield added 3D printing support, increasing prototype parts demand more than six-fold in seven years. He also created a virtual garage service that builds 3D models for VR, product support, and marketing. For Chipperfield it’s all about advocating the technology. “Our internal customers need to know our capabilities,” he said.

Like any small business owner, Chipperfield is frugal, treating John Deere’s budget like it were his own. That mindset carries with it an attitude of ownership. “There are no excuses around what we do,” he said. “I don’t see it as some large company doing this. This is my business and I have a responsibility to make sure it works.”

And making it work comes with fascinating results.

“If I were to explain what I do,” Chipperfield said, “I guess I’d say I show customers our products before we ever build them to get their feedback. At the core of it, virtual reality is a communication tool that allows them to interact with our new designs much like they would interact with what they drive every day.”

What Chipperfield shows customers through virtual reality is an immersive experience that simulates real life. The products customers see in VR, from skid steers to forestry forwarders to 20-ton motor graders, look real. They see the yellow or green paint. The tires are right in front of them. The controls in the cab are close enough to touch. Except none of it is real.

“The technical term is suspension of disbelief,” he said. “Once they're in there, it's magical how the conversation changes from ‘here's this weird headset I'm wearing’ to ‘these are the features that are important to me.’ I know they’re really immersed when they try to lean against equipment that’s not there.”

While VR isn’t real, there is one achievement that is: Chipperfield’s recognition as a 2022 John Deere Advanced Visualization Fellow Award winner.

Changes, simplified

What VR allows Chipperfield and John Deere to do is make improvements in product design in “fairly simple” ways.

“The main reason VR is important is because it's relatively easy to change the design before physical parts are made,” he said. “Before, when we showed customers our products at the physical build stage, any proposed changes would result in delays and added cost. But if we are looking at it in VR and the customer’s like, ‘This is not quite right. I'd really like to see this corner of the bucket a little better’ the engineers can fix that without causing delays.”

VR brought a learning curve. Just six years ago headsets were costly – “as expensive as a car,” Chipperfield said – and would cause some wearers to get motion sickness. But with all things tech, it didn’t take long before better options, including software, allowed for improvements both in price and experience. And, Chipperfield added, the impact of VR was undeniable.

Before VR, that interaction was equal parts tried, true, and rigid. Customer and dealer surveys would go out. Feedback would come in. Gatherings would be held. People would sit in the real thing and look around, kick the tires that were there.

There is still a lot of value in the “old way of doing things,” he said. “Talking with customers and dealers is invaluable. VR doesn’t replace that. It really just changes the setting.”

Riding the bull

Solving issues and sharing knowledge is an essential part of the Dubuque lab’s team approach to VR. It not only involves mentoring colleagues but keeping an eye on the future as well. Chipperfield is known for his involvement in school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

“STEM is trying to get younger people interested in engineering,” he said. “And honestly, VR is great for that because it kind of shows them a fun and cool side of engineering. You don’t just sit at a desk all day. You interact with customers, drive tractors, solve problems, and do cool stuff.”

For Chipperfield, extending that “cool stuff” vibe means sharing it through mentoring and teaching. It’s here that he’s helped create a behavior. One of his Fellow letters of recommendation said, “He causes others to behave like this, too.” It’s a testament to his dedication, enthusiasm, and passion around VR.

“When people see you’re passionate about your job and working hard, I think they're likely to follow that path as well,” he said.

While he’s “extremely proud” of those he’s brought into Deere and helped mentor, he quickly points out his success – however it’s measured – includes many helping hands.

“I haven't been alone in this journey. A lot of the credit, even for the things that I've done, goes to other people I've worked with. This really is like a family.”

In the end, though, Chipperfield said it’s about making the most of what’s put in front of you. About starting that small business. Something, he said, John Deere allows you to do – if you’re ready.

“Growing up in Kansas I went to rodeos,” he said. “And the projects I’ve been given were a lot like bull riding. You know, part of your score is staying on the bull. But the other part of your score is simply the bull. If you get a wild one, you get a better score. At John Deere, sometimes it's the opportunities and the challenges we’re given. Sometimes it’s the bull. And how you react to it.”


2022 Fellows