Cream of the crop: why Dairymaster leads the field in agri-engineering
29 November 2016
Unusually for a manufacturing facility, dairy-equipment manufacturer Dairymaster produces almost 95% of all parts in-house. Founded in 1968, the company now employs 300 people in its global headquarters in Causeway, Co Kerry – with 20 involved in research and development – and 35 staff in its UK and US operating offices. Some 75% of production is exported to 40 wholesale and retail customers overseas.
However, when I spoke with Edmond Harty, CEO and technical director of Dairymaster and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012, I decided to go back and start at the beginning. It proved an interesting place to start.
‘I was always interested in technical things, in how things work…ripping them up and putting them back together. And making stuff. If you talked to my mother, she’d tell you that as a young lad, going to school, I’d have a screwdriver in the bag.’
‘A screwdriver?’ I only had books and a lunchbox in my schoolbag, occasionally football cards.
‘My primary school was a two-teacher school, and if there was a plug to be wired or something to be done, you’d be left do it. I’m not saying that those kind of things are acceptable today by any means, but that was the way back then. The point I’m making is, it wasn’t a case of, “Oh, no, don’t be doing that.” People were allowed to do things and that’s important.’
‘So do you think engineering education should be more practical?’ I asked.
‘I think it should. It’s one thing to do the theory, but if you look at programmes, now, while they are trying to incorporate more work experience, the commercial reality of a thing needs to be brought into it, as well, which can sometimes be missing from college courses. People think: this is the way it has to be done and you need to go through all these hoops. Whereas really what the engineer needs to be thinking about is the end game, to produce a product that the customer is excited about. I think that needs to be more in mind.’
Engineering and business acumen
‘That obviously flared my interest because it was a case of drop the school bag and try and do anything but homework. Both my grandfathers were farmers and I had uncles farming.’
This has fed into one of the strongest features of Dairymaster’s success: their understanding of the customer. ‘You need to be thinking about the customer and what are their challenges. The engineering mind asks: how do I solve this problem, how do I do things better? But then it’s about getting all that together and understanding your customer, understanding what it is they need. Innovation is like baking a cake, it’s about putting different ingredients together to make something nice.
‘These different ingredients can be different features or even different technologies. One of the things that I do regularly is keep an eye on all sorts of new technologies and say: OK, does this apply to farming? One story I’ve told before is around our product the Moomonitor, and how it came about.
‘On a flight to Canada I was reading about rockets and torpedoes, and how they know where they are even when they lose their GPS signal. I said to a colleague of mine sitting next to me, Fergus O’Meara [Dairymaster’s international business development manager], “You know, I think we could use this stuff.” And he looked at me and said, “How do you think that?” And it was by knowing how cows behave and how you could link stuff together, different ingredients.’
The MooMonitor tackles the problematic and costly area of herd fertility by identifying precisely when to breed the cow and start the cycle. For a cow to produce milk, she needs to have a calf. The use of nanotechnology means farmers can monitor animal behaviour on a 24-hour basis to ensure they do not miss out on a ‘heat’ – missing a single ‘heat’ typically costs a farmer €250 for each cow.
This close monitoring also allows those challenged cows to be identified at the earliest possible stage. A complementary smartphone app has also been developed, which allows the system to be viewed remotely.
The company maintains a strong focus on in-house R&D, manufacturing and the application of advancements in engineering technology. I realised, though, that there is more than just great technical ideas at the heart of what Harty does. There is also an attitude.
Competing in the global marketplace
‘You’ve got to say, not how am I going to do something better, but how am I going to do something a hell of a lot better. Some people will just say, I have a drawing to do, or I have software to design, but what they don’t focus on is: how is this software going to be so much better than any other bit of software that’s out there? How am I putting my mark on this? That’s the kind of mindset one has to give people.’
‘Within the organisation, it’s about keeping an eye on things and saying: “What if?” Outside the organisation…if we look at engineering in Ireland…there are some very innovative companies but the mindset must be: we’re a small country, we’re competing with a lot of other countries, we need to do our job better and quicker. That’s really important. And sometimes people don’t realise how important it is.
‘They think: OK, it’s going to take another week, or, there’s another month in that. But you need to ask yourself: will that make a difference? And that’s a tricky thing because people don’t necessarily see the immediate impact of it.’
‘You mean, in case you miss those opportunities, you have to generate that urgency yourself?’ ‘Yes. If you plan things to take a long time, they’re going to take longer. If you go down a certain road, you should know, well, what’s the next step after that…almost be able to see around the corner, pre-empt what’s coming.’
In this ‘urgent’, high-tech, global marketplace – as well as the plant in Kerry, Dairymaster have facilities in both the US and UK, and customers in over 40 countries – I wondered if there was ever any strain on the father-son relationship that has been at the heart of the business for most of its existence? And was the handover across the generations difficult?
‘Seamless. Not a problem. If I go back to when I was a young lad, I preferred to be doing stuff rather than doing homework, and I suppose, we just get on. Equally, I would say there is good communication. Nothing is ever shot down, either way. I just think there’s a good relationship.’
‘When did it become apparent to you that you would go into the business?’ I asked. ‘I always had the interest,’ Harty replied. “Going back to those days, there was a Commodore 64 computer at home and I used to solder stuff. I always liked the software and the electronics. When I went to the University of Limerick, I studied mechanical engineering. What I spend most of my time doing now, is mixing them all together.’
Harty also earned a PhD under senior lecturer Dr Patrick Grace, in the UCD School of Biosystems & Food Engineering. True to his roots, his research focused on milking performance in dairy farming: ‘The measurement and modelling of liner behaviour and the influence of milking cluster design’.
‘Going back to what I was saying about the cake, it’s taking some ingredients from the mechanical side, some from the electronic side, some from software, some from farming, and trying to mix all of that together. The mechanical side is a big element of what we do. The software and the electronics are a little bit like the icing on the cake, but it’s actually what makes it attractive to your customer and also how you can increase the value for the customer.’
Importance of communication
I was interested in the cake. ‘I notice when you talk about your business, and I’ve seen this in other articles about you, that you use very practical metaphors…baking cakes, playing sports, thinking of a milk-tank as a safe…that sort of thing. Communication is very important to you?’
‘Communication is what it’s about; you want people to understand you. Sometimes you see people and they use big scientific terms, the medical and biological language that goes with, say, milk production…mastitis, disease, all that stuff…but I think you’re a better communicator if you can get people to understand what you’re on about. There is no point letting the language become a barrier. If we’re training people, here, I always try to use the very simple words: “For example…”. “What this means is…’ You know?
Then Harty, fittingly, gave me an example. ‘One of the things we’re able to do, here, is take heat from milk and heat water. It sounds relatively simple, but when you go into the thermodynamic cycles, if I was explaining it to anybody bar someone who remembers their thermodynamics from college, they wouldn’t get what I was on about. They might reckon: this is complicated and it sounds good, but I don’t really follow it, so maybe it’s not. Whereas if you can explain it to them more simply, they get the benefit quicker and they’re more convinced. They can see that it makes sense.’
And it struck me, then, that interviewing a great communicator is a piece of cake, really (continuing the theme) but I didn’t want to take up any more of Edmond Harty’s time, so I asked him just one more quick question. Of all the things in a very varied job, that he clearly loves, what does he enjoy doing most?
‘I suppose the bit that I like most is being involved in development. More than anything else. That’s where I believe I make my greatest impact. If I could control every hour of the day, that’s where I’d be all the time…generating new ideas, implementing them, working with the rest of the team.’
Which is something that should make us all think. New ideas don’t just come to you, you have to seek them out. It’s only then that you can spot connections between torpedoes and cows, or the latest farming technology and cake. Food for thought (pardon the pun).
Barry Brophy is an engineer, lecturer in technical communications at UCD and writer.
For more, please see the Tech Comm page on the UCD website.