How do new turf industry products come to be?

By Eric Schroder

Last summer I was invited to The Toro Company’s headquarters outside Minneapolis to take part in their annual Sports Fields & Grounds Forum. While there I meet some of the principals involved in developing a new product, “the Outcross 9060,” and toured the company’s research and development facilities. In my role as editor I’ve toured a few manufacturing plants over the years. Seeing first-hand how mowers, utility vehicles and other equipment used by sports turf managers are built makes for an interesting day. But the inside look from those who figure out the whys and hows of engineering, not only for a new piece of equipment but for an entirely new product category, was truly intriguing.

Toro was founded more than 100 years ago to provide engines for an early tractor manufacturer, called The Bull Tractor Company, an association that began the name “Toro.” Later the company shifted its focus to the mowing industry after a golf club asked it to create a motorized fairway mower (the members were probably tired of playing out of horse hoof divots). That first machine featured five reel mowers mounted onto the front of a farm tractor.

Toro engineers have been cultivating new products ever since, including some with great names: a fairway sprinkler system in 1925 (the “Sea Serpent”); the first push reel mower in 1928 (the “Silver Flash”); and a stand-on mower in 2008 (the “GrandStand”) During my visit, picking the winning name for the machine seemed to be one of the most perplexing of all details being juggled by Noah Wahl, Product Marketing Manager. In the end, Outcross was selected because of its fitting definition: to cross by breeding characteristics of different strains for the purpose of removing unwanted traits or introducing desired traits.

Designing a new product

I asked Wahl what has to happen before getting a green light to begin developing a new product. “Key aspects to uncovering the value of a new product center around the customer, in listening to and observing their needs. Engineers, marketers, and sales all ask questions to find those aspects that are causing the customers’ issues. Recognizing the customer needs, rationalizing the value of fulfilling that need, understanding the gaps or risks in the technology required to meet that need, and determining the practicality of building the product, are the initial steps of the concept and feasibility stages,” he said.

“Once those key aspects are found, our development teams start to conceptualize a product that customers will value by allowing them to perform their jobs and tasks more efficiently and at a higher quality,” Wahl said. “It is then up to the project team to build the business case that will give the project the green light.”

What’s the next step?

“At this point, we build our first prototypes and start to put them through rigorous lab and real-world testing. Components are put through millions of cycles in worst-case scenarios to ensure they meet our specifications. Nothing moves forward unless we are sure it will fulfill our customer’s needs and meet their performance expectations,.

Rex Bergsten, Chief Development Engineer, led my tour of the R&D department. Bergsten patiently explained what the goals are in each area of the department as we walked through the maze of stations and testing rooms. I commented more than once about how much money it must cost, especially given not only the trial-and-error nature of engineering a new machine, but also the investment in technology and hardware of the equipment that enables Toro’s staff to conduct tests and create models. Rex was too modest to quote actual numbers but even an all-thumbs novice like me knows the company has invested tens of millions of dollars in their R&D labs to ensure the highest product quality

I asked Bergsten at what point are customers involved in the development process. “For a successful product development program, it is critical to have the customer involved throughout the entire process. At Toro, our process involves the customer early and often. Customer feedback and suggestions are the impetus for most projects. We get an idea, put something together, and immediately get it in front of customers. After we receive feedback, we go back to the drawing board to make the product better. Then it goes in front of customers again. This cycle continues throughout the development process until we meet all the customers’ expectations and needs,” Bergsten said.

“After a product goes to market, we go back to the customer to verify their needs are being met,” he said. During this process it is quite common to uncover needs that are unrelated to a product currently being developed. For example, while working on the Outcross, several other potential new products or significant improvements to other existing products were being formulated.”

I asked, “What is the toughest part of the development process? Or does that differ with each new product?”

“Toro has a long history of turf-focused products. Product development is applying that turf product knowledge to an entirely new category of product for the industry that will help turf managers accomplish so much with one product. The customers who have supplied feedback through the development process have been key to challenging our engineers and marketing teams to think outside the box,” Bergsten said.

Wahl responded, “The toughest part of any project is in sweating the details, including taking the time to understand what the customer really is needing, developing a test plan to ensure the product meets those needs, creating a manufacturing process that provides the consistent product quality customers expect from Toro, and having trained support after the sale to provide many years of satisfied use by the customer.”

One piece of technology that has made product development easier is the 3D printer. “It’s imperative that all parts function as designed but the look and feel of a component is also very important.” Bergsten said. “We use the 3D printer to quickly test the fit, function and feel of a part before we go into production.”

Test drive

Wahl said the idea behind the Outcross had been floating around Toro for years; that is, a machine that could deliver the power of a tractor, perform multiple tasks, drive like a utility vehicle, operate simply, and do it all on fine turf without damaging the grass. Of course the last item might be as important as any to sports turf managers; Bergsten said this is because the machine distributes its weight evenly and features four-wheel steering (it’s 4-wheel drive too).

“If there are jobs around the sports field that you do now with a tractor or utility vehicle, you can likely do them more efficiently and with reduced risk of turf damage with this machine,” Wahl said.

Wahl and Bergsten had me aerating the grounds of Toro’s headquarters in just a few minutes (I told you it was simple). Operating the machine was very similar to driving a car and the aerator was controlled with one paddle near the steering wheel. This is possible thanks to pre-set attachment parameters (set one time, by you) that take the decision making away from the operator and give it back the turf manager. Wahl said this should enable less-experienced crewmembers to safely and consistently complete tasks with which they might not have been previously .

Over the years I’ve learned that product development is a long, expensive, and painstaking process that when done correctly results in products that make your job easier. When a company like Toro asks you for feedback or for you to come visit, jump at the opportunity. Your input will likely play a part in the next product you use on your turf.

Eric Schroder is editorial director for SportsTurf magazine.