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Some equipment industry observers were initially skeptical when rubber-belted tractors were introduced into the agricultural market in the mid-1980s. But Caterpillar Inc., the international earth-moving company based in Peoria, Ill., was confident about the new product research that projected their rubber-track technology would succeed.

Now, the company is launching their third generation of Caterpillar Challenger tractors, the MT700 Series, and product research remains central to their launch. The new series has been designed with customer input in mind. And while some industry observers might again question why Caterpillar would unveil a new tractor series during tough economic times for producers, the company is confident that the new Challengers are one way that producers can improve on-farm economics over the long run.

"We believe that the agricultural industry has stabilized and that an upturn in the ag economy is coming, although predicting when that upturn will occur is a difficult thing to do," says Mark Teel, commercial manager for Caterpillar Agricultural Products Inc., DeKalb, Ill. "In addition, industry market research reveals that farm fleets are aging and need to be upgraded. So we are trying to meet those needs and offer producers a tractor design that can help address the challenges they face."

Designing the MT700 Series tractors began in late 1996 with product research that Teel says is critical to the tractor design process and ultimately for customers. Caterpillar engineers incorporated what they learned from previous Challenger models to improve upon the design, as well as relied on the company’s experiences with machinery-related solutions for other industries.

"You could say we’ve invested in research and development (R&D) on this product (the MT700 Series) since we introduced the first Challenger tractor in 1986. A lot of what has gone into the new design is the result of what we’ve learned since we first brought out rubber-track technology," Teel confirms. "It’s critical to understand how a customer will use a machine, and what it takes for a machine owner to be profitable in their line of business. By involving customers in the process from step one, we can be better assured of meeting their long-term needs."

Specifically, Caterpillar began the new product research process by talking with "literally hundreds of growers from around the world." A research firm was hired to formally conduct surveys and a number of focus groups. "We asked growers throughout North America, Europe and Australia what they look for when buying a tractor. We also sought information about their tractor application needs and about operational criteria," says Teel. "Finally, we asked them to dream a little and think about what they would really like to see on a tractor that’s brand new from the ground up."

In addition to the formal research, Caterpillar collected feedback from customers who visited the company’s manufacturing facility during the last several years.

"It was important that producer groups we spoke with represented a wide cross-section of farming practices, as well as multiple brand equipment ownership. We utilized grower and Cat dealer advisory panels as well," adds Teel. "The panels had hands-on involvement from a clean sheet of paper through prototypes and early production units."

From research, the new product was developed and taken into the equipment-testing phase. Caterpillar used a comprehensive set of test strategies to "ensure the tractor designs meet aggressive reliability criteria, beginning with individual components." One example Teel cites is the MT700 Series Mobil-trac system undercarriage test beds, which first began testing in early 1998, to give engineers more time to evaluate and fine-tune the updated design.

Once the overall tractor design was in place, Teel says Caterpillar began to test the entire machine. "We’ve now built and tested three generations of prototype tractors," says Teel. "Our early production units were involved in extensive testing in all kinds of conditions, pulling all types of implements in locations around the world. This testing allows us to gauge the tractor’s capabilities and make changes as necessary."

Field testing of the tractor was augmented by another round of research and development in the shop, including such evaluations as accelerated testing on drive train simulators, a highly rigorous shake table test, and cold rooms and cooling system test cells that allowed engineers to subject the new product to extreme conditions.

"All this is done to assure that these machines meet the aggressive reliability criteria written into design specifications," says Teel. "The R&D that went into the MT700 Series has resulted in several changes that range from such features as improved power and comfort to the undercarriage designs. These features are designed to help farmers improve efficiency and productivity in what continues to be an increasingly competitive environment."

Some of the new product features added following specific customer requests and research include changes in the Mobil-trac system that further improve ride, traction and application flexibility. Producers also asked for improved hydraulics, resulting in increased standard flow and an exclusive system that delivers proportional flow to circuits when the system is operating at maximum capacity.

"Listening to producers and conducting several stages of R&D are integral to new product launches," says Teel. "When producers purchase equipment, they want to know the product will perform in the long haul. It’s a different R&D approach than that used by other segments of the agriculture industry."

Teel stresses, "Agriculture has been identified as one of Caterpillar’s major growth initiatives for the future. We have other new products in the pipeline, and have formed alliances with other companies to develop equipment that will meet the harvest and tillage needs of producers. We want producers to know that Caterpillar needs their input so we can provide the best equipment for the job."

Caterpillar’s reliance on producer input is one of the key messages that Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill., is using this fall to help Caterpillar launch the new MT700 Series tractors.

"We think it’s important to let farmers know that they, or at least farmers like them, have had a say during the research phase," says Gini Arment, management supervisor with Rhea & Kaiser. "Ultimately for the product to succeed, it needs to provide the productivity and features that producers need. To meet the criteria, the company must listen, and from a marketing perspective, we must reinforce the ‘farmer-driven design’ approach."

In working on the public relations campaign this fall, Arment found that communicating the research conducted was extremely important. "Producers were involved in brainstorm sessions before the tractor series even was in preliminary thought stages," she says. "Merchandising the results of those sessions and other research and the involvement of customers in the implementation of tractor production helps us create a sense of ownership among dealers and growers and that helps sell the end product."

Rhea & Kaiser colleague Jim Haist, senior vice president, agrees. "In the case of designing an all-new tractor, the ‘input’ of producers is essential to a company like Caterpillar in delivering a new product that’s on target with the performance criteria and new features these growers want or need," he says. "Often we find from our contact with producers, that they generally feel abused and over-researched by ag companies. It can be extremely hard to get their input. But at the same time, we find that producers want to know the companies pay attention to them. We have found that most farmers enjoy machinery, especially tractors and combines, and they want the opportunity to share ideas on how to make the equipment work better on their farms."

Haist encourages companies working with agencies in the new product research arena or on new product launches to maximize the mileage that such research results offer.

"It’s vital for clients to share as much information about the development process with their agencies as possible," he says. "With this information available at the planning stages, agencies can most effectively weave it into a fully integrated launch."

Arment suggests that agencies recommend to their clients they put together a strategic program that incorporates the knowledge and results learned from extensive studies. "This not only offers news, it lends credibility to the company and its brand or service," she explains. "The ‘farmer-driven design’ of the new Challenger MT700 Series tractors has been a big part of launch efforts, especially for the dealer and key customer preview event, yet the point carries through as a part of nearly all Caterpillar’s launch communications materials." AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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