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Product-related services – this is what CLAAS, the European market leader for combine harvesters, offers customers. To ensure that various services work smoothly together, together with Cluster Reply the agricultural machinery manufacturer developed a communication platform based on Microsoft Azure.
"The knowledge must be available in-house, the solution quickly adaptable. This is the only way speed and scalability can be guaranteed, which is necessary for example in the harvest months", explains Sven Holbrügge, team head machine communication / IoT at CLAAS.
The CLAAS development Telematics, a digital transmission system, is one of the applications that permits the retrieval and documentation of work data, driving tracks and yield data in the case of correspondingly equipped agricultural machinery. Another example is the CLAAS Fleet View app, which,among other things, permits end customers to recognise the position of all machinery at a glance.
Furthermore, the platform is also used by the award-winning cross-manufacturer cloud-to-cloud solution DataConnect – developed by CLAAS, Cluster Reply, 365FarmNet and John Deere. Farmers can record, process and document the data of agricultural machinery of various manufacturers via DataConnect. In 2020, DataConnect was honoured at the Agritechnica, a leading trade fair for agricultural technology, with the Machine of the Year prize.
Before CLAAS focused on cloud platforms, it purchased connectivity services and mapped them according to the on-premises model. This quickly made the corporate IT realise: to ensure the focus was on CLAAS customers, the development, operation and maintenance of service networks had to be managed in-house.
The machines of CLAAS are in part in barns for eleven months, but have to be reliable in the twelfth month and work at full capacity with every available service. "During the harvest phase, we need more capacity: we scale up within seconds. Adjusting to harvest cycles is feasible, but difficult, with an on-premises solution. Reacting is more cost-intensive," explains Holbrügge.
The scaling was the decisive point for raking a closer look at a cloud solution, specifically Microsoft Azure. In the case of a platform-as-a-service solution (PaaS), hardware and software does not have to be procured – in this case from Microsoft – but can instead be provided as a service.
The communication platform used by CLAAS connects a five-figure number of agricultural machines with server applications, used by customers and CLAAS employees (for example, the customer service). The solution allows machines and back-end systems to communicate with each other - securely, reliably and scalably.
The platform uses the Azure services among others
IoT hub for secure bidirectional connection between machines and the cloud
Event Hubs for streaming messages to applications
Event Grid for internal application messages
Azure functions for serverless, scalable applications
Cosmos DB and Azure SQL databases as scalable and distributed database solutions
"With Microsoft Azure, we are using existing solutions and for example have a certified security system on board. We use the modules needed, like in a LEGO construction kit. The development speed is fantastic," says Holbrügge.
Holbrügge sees another advantage of the PaaS approach in the fact that the services are constantly being refined: "Technically, you remain state-of-the-art - a huge advantage. If there are new functionalities, we can generate added value for our customers without having to raise prices."
Moreover, according to Holbrügge, developers can also occupy themselves with functionalities that otherwise could not be realised: "Our greatest asset are our human development resources. If we can conserve or ease the burden on them, several projects can run in parallel." All of these points enable CLAAS to be more flexible for its customers - a decisive competitive advantage.
The communication platform has been developed in cooperation with Cluster Reply for several years. In the context of this cooperation, the DataConnect solution and new functions were also developed in cooperation with the Advance Development department. Constant customer focus is central here.
"We and Cluster Reply think together in the interests of the customer. That is a recipe for success, which is why we have been working as partners for several years," explains Holbrügge.
To maintain a high development tempo, CLAAS and Cluster Reply have adopted an agile work approach. Functional components of a final product are created in time-limited, repeatable work cycles, so-called sprints. CLAAS evaluated this procedure at the beginning of the cooperation. "We started off small with a backlog and then developed into a growing team, which has worked with sprint backlogs across various subjects." Cluster Reply, which is familiar with agility, provided support in establishing this work method at CLAAS.
One of the advantages of the work method is its open error culture, "When a company brings in a service provider, there is a risk they will simply tell the company what it wants to hear. But it's perhaps more important to ask what may not be working so well. What can be improved to transform potential into something productive?" says Holbrügge.
During the development, it turned out that the cloud platform changed the corporate IT department's own perception of itself and how other perceive it. The department has transformed itself from a pure IT service provider into a partner for the specialist units Step by step, this has resulted in added value and features. This is because the internal partnership prevents work on stand-alone solutions.
CLAAS will also continue to develop the communication platform beyond 2020 with Cluster Reply, in close cooperation with other specialist units and using an interdisciplinary approach. "The IT systems will arrive in every corporate area, whether it is features for our customers, digital back-end solutions or digital processes." Based on a cloud platform, CLAAS can quickly and reliably offer its customers high quality added value.
The company, based in Harsewinkel (Germany) is the European market leader in combine harvesters. CLAAS is the world market leader in another large product segment, self-driving flail forage harvesters. CLAAS is also among the worldwide leaders in agricultural technology when it comes to tractors, agricultural presses and forage harvesters. The product range also includes state-of-the-art agricultural information technology. CLAAS employs over 11,400 employees worldwide and generated 3.8 billion euros in sales in the 2019 financial year.
Cluster Reply is a company of the Reply Group that specialises in consulting and system integration for Microsoft technologies. The company focuses on innovation and supports the development of Microsoft products, from on-premises to cloud applications for areas including the modern workplace, business applications, applications and infrastructure, data and artificial intelligence.