Last Updated on November 6, 2023 by Brian Beck
Technology is constantly changing, improving and being adapted to better the human experience to make our lives more productive. Ironically, humans typically are resistant to change as it can challenge our comfort, our routine and our order in life. The initial uneasiness of a technological shift however can present for some an unreconcilable situation where change becomes so uncomfortable, it becomes violent as it did in England during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites, who destroyed machinery, especially mills that were in the cotton and wool industry exhibited this behavior. As you have probably guessed, the Luddites did not win and as painful it was for them we are better off for it. The modern man has every benefit afforded to them as the result of human development from running water and sanitation to homes that are fitted with HVAC to automotive technology that carries us from point A to point B. These are but a few of the myriad of technologies that make our life easier and more productive. For instance, we can now produce more food with one combine in a day that would take hundreds of men and animals a month to achieve the same goal. Are we better for it?
Some people think, as did the Luddites that with progress comes a threat of livelihoods and a dehumanization from mechanization. While this warrants further thought to be sure that mankind moves forward in a moral and ethical manner, if the benefit of millions comes at the cost of a few thousand that may be put in an uncomfortable position briefly, the outcome would most likely be accepted as a moral outcome. Did the Luddites die from technological change? Probably not but they were forced to change and adapt to a different world that embraced a new technology. What happened to the men who made and serviced horse drawn carriages during the advent of the internal combustion engine? Well, they became engine mechanics, tire salesmen, exhaust muffler manufacturers, motor oil supply men and gas station attendants. Are we better off for it? How long did it take for you to get to Grandma’s out of state for Christmas last year? Even the animals were better off as they were no longer forced to be beasts of burden and the land that was required to raise and feed them could now be used for other purposes that directly benefitted man.
The landscape industry has been in a terrible position for the last few decades, particularly in the area of turf management. For years manufacturers built large, powerful and fast mowers that could mow large swaths of turf in a short period of time. However there is a limit to this amount of productivity.as it requires energy to operate, typically gas or diesel. It will also require a human to operate it and this is where the model of turf productivity falls apart. As the cost to compensate the human operating the machine climbs it outpaces the machines ability to be productive. You can only build so good of a machine and people can only operate during daylight as the business model is dependent on the human being and their physical limitations operating the machine. Sooner or later something is going to snap as the machines ability to be efficient is critically related to the humans ability to make it so. What then is the next logical step? Well if you have washed a load of laundry lately you might have an idea what is the next logical step and that would be automation.
While it is largely unknown in North America, the first Robotic mower was invented in Sweden in the early 90’s. I saw my first mower almost 20 years ago on the side of a customer’s house. It was derelict and that would be the last one I would see until the fall of 2017 when I saw a video on You Tube proclaiming that robotic mowers would be a massive force in the coming years. Automation was coming and that was inevitable. With the recent advancement in battery technology, a shrinking labor force with a diminishing work ethic, the Corona Virus saga and the ensuing phenomenon of “Hey, I don’t feel like working this month”, the conditions became very ripe for a solution because the show must go on and the grass is not mowing itself any time soon. All of a sudden the robotic mowers look like a very good alternative as they require very little maintenance, don’t need to be fed, don’t need sleep, don’t have an ego, will not ask for a raise after three weeks on the job and will mow the grass at 2am on a Monday after a three day weekend celebrating the 4th of July. Ok, you get the idea right?
With recent legislation and new laws in Colorado it will be mandatory for state run facilities to adopt battery operated technologies beginning in 2024. While this will eventually ripple throughout the entire industry it will force those taking care of these landscapes with battery powered machines. But rather than take a lateral sidestep with battery powered large equipment why not go one more step and consider automation so time can be leveraged and productivity can be maximized? Well I recently sent out word reaching out to people across the state letting them know about this option. One person responded and simply said, “Good for you but just more people being put out of work. No thanks”. Haven’t we been here before in history? This reminds me of a story involving Milton Friedman, Nobel Award winner for economics who one time visited China on a diplomatic mission several decades ago. The Chinese counterpart took him on a tour of the progress they were making and to a project where the government had created jobs for the people digging a canal with shovels and no machinery present. He proudly said, “Look at all of the jobs that we have created for the people.” Friedman retorted and said, “Why not give them spoons and provide more jobs?” I’m sure that he did not win any Chinese awards that day but they are Communists and the point was probably lost. The point was are we in the business of creating jobs or are we looking to be productive? Creating jobs at the expense of productivity doesn’t get us to the moon in 1969. It probably does not get us to Industrial Revolution in the mid 1800’s either. While having jobs is important, are we clinging to an outdated business model at the expense of productivity? New technologies have been proven to bring more and different jobs but the transition must take place and the efficiency of automation begs the question, how much energy and time are we wasting on an outdated system? I’ll let you ponder that while my robotic mower cuts my lawn this morning at 2am.