2022 FELLOW AWARD

Humpal goes "inside the box" to change sprayer narrative

It wasn’t that long ago that farming application equipment was viewed through a skeptical lens. Sprayers had only one way to deliver inputs to the field, and that was broadly. The perception was one of waste and the environmental message was caught between necessity and limited options.

Rich Humpal
Rich Humpal

For more than two decades, Rich Humpal, application technology lead, has worked to change all that.

Growing up, Humpal’s parents taught the value of a positive attitude. “‘Can’t’ wasn’t a word we were allowed to use,” Humpal said simply. If there was a problem, they told him, then solve it.

“They also emphasized leaving things better than how you found them,” he added. “That last one really resonated with me.”

So, perhaps it was fate that brought him to John Deere and the sprayer. Or just good parenting.

Either way, his colleagues and his company have taken notice. Humpal has earned a 2022 John Deere Fellow Award for Application Technology with one of his letters of recommendation for the honor providing this insight: “Rich is the person you most often come to for the question of ‘Is it possible to …’”

Cue the can-do attitude.

Because if we’re talking possibilities, here’s what’s nearly impossible to think about: the development and advancement of John Deere sprayers without Rich Humpal. Considered one of the more complex product lines, Humpal has contributed to, innovated, and led John Deere’s application systems for more than 20 years.

When Humpal hears about others expressing the value he brings to the company, his unease with the praise is clear. At first, he tries deflecting it, creating a quiet shield of humility. It’s rare to hear him say “I.” Most of his sentences, when asked about accomplishments, begin with “we.”

That does make sense, given his driving philosophy of “inside the box” thinking.

“I hear this a lot – outside the box thinking,” Humpal said. “Everybody has their own expertise in their area. I like to reach out and pull these people in and expand my knowledge. It allows everyone to become a greater expert. There's just so much talent here that by including more it has a multiplicative effect because of the diversity of thought.”

Vision for a better world

That view has allowed Humpal to employ a building block approach, something he says takes advantage of the technology of today and the future.

The first block in his career was the 4700 Series sprayer.

“When I first came on and we started designing the architecture for the new 4700 a lot of what we put in place we had the vision of what would be coming,” he said. In this case, it was GPS technology.

“What that grew into was AutoTrac™, which led to section control and all those types of things. We were prepared for all that and we basically could plug into it all. It really accelerated the adoption of those technologies and helped form the basis for what is precision farming,” he said.

And, he added, it led to products like See & Spray™ and ExactApply™.

“When I think back about being young and inexperienced, but having some foresight, it really set us up for success. Those are awesome programs and probably the highlight of my career,” Humpal said.

See & Spray is a vision-based system that targets only the weeds and not the crop. It addresses all the issues related to waste and sustainability. It also is technology Humpal and his teams worked on beginning more than 20 years ago.

“We were developing intellectual property on this in the 1990s,” Humpal said. “But it just wasn’t practical at the time because there wasn’t the full availability of technology or supporting tech like graphics processing units to make it happen. But we didn’t forget where we wanted to be.”

The last decade has seen the tech match the vision, allowing Humpal’s building block style to fully form.

The same can be said for another enabling technology, ExactApply – the nozzle control system that can react in 6 milliseconds to provide the right product accurately to a target. To give that speed some context, MIT neuroscientists found that the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees in as little as 13 milliseconds. ExactApply works in half that time.

The mission, expanded

Humpal said another way to improve lives and livelihoods is by growing collaboration and passing on what he has learned over his career. But, he admits, there is a selfish side to it as well.

“Teaching and mentoring helps me as much as those I work with,” he said. “It’s very reciprocal and that’s what I love about it. I might learn more than I share.”

Either way, the sprayer story – and Humpal’s role – has proven impactful.

“A few years back spraying chemicals wasn’t a positive thing. Now it's turning the corner with people saying, ‘OK, you're making the world better by what you do.’ This has a strong recruiting aspect because as a high-tech company we can show we’re helping the environment and at John Deere, we’re doing it together,” he said.

And leaving the world better than he found it takes him back to his childhood where those first steps of purpose were placed.

“It is deep in my DNA and what I love to do. Working for John Deere and solving problems, there couldn’t have been a better match for me,” he said. “I have always thought, ‘How can you make it more productive and easier?’ I don't like anything status quo. Everything can always be improved.”

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