Whoever says milking robot, says Karel van den Berg. The idea behind the machine came from founders Arij and Cornelis van der Lely, but the actual elaboration of that idea is to Karel’s credit. Like so many products in the stable that have been manufactured ever since, they rolled out of his head.
In 1985, Karel came in via an advertisement in which Lely somewhat cryptically asked for a development engineer. That ad hangs at the Polytechnic where Karel is studying at the time. “I was intrigued so responded. And not much later I was sitting opposite Arij van der Lely, Gijs Eikelenboom and Cees Bom. That was quite a delegation, while I was sitting there looking a bit shabby. I had come by motorbike and had my things in a shopping bag. I felt that Mr. Arij was scanning me from top to bottom and somehow he must have liked what he saw, because I was allowed a second interview. That is when I understood I was about to develop a milking robot.”
Having grown up on an agricultural farm, Karel knows how demanding the work gets, so he takes the plunge and accepts the challenge.
How not to do it
Karel soon gets help from Nico van Paassen, whom he calls a handy workshop man. The first prototype they come up with is an arm coming out of the ground. Mr. Arij was guaranteed to be there; he always came when we were going to test something. But that didn’t go well, because once near the teat, the sensor couldn’t detect it. And then it didn’t connect properly. But yes, a first idea like that also brings about a lot of insights into how not to do it.”
There is a lot to tell about the development of the robot, Karel smiles, but he prefers thinking, sketching and tinkering to talking. So he hopscotches through it and gets to the point that Lely had a few cows in a barn on the factory site. “We had to watch them every day. At the beginning, that was still fun. Every now and then I would take my children with me. But after a year we got a bit fed up with having to go to the farm every weekend. Then Arij’s son took over the job of taking care of the cows - after a while a camera system was also installed to see how those cows behaved at night, for that matter - and we could focus on further development again.”
That eventually led to a small number of farmers getting the first real robot on their fields in 1992 to gain practical experience. Carlo Verburg does the servicing and gives feedback to Karel’s team so they can continue to further fine-tune the robot. “And in 1995, the market launch of the milking robot takes place. With the first robots, mouths still fell open in amazement and people wondered how it was at all possible to milk cows robotically. Another thing we heard a lot from farmers was the joyful sigh that life had become so much easier thanks to our robot. However, this is different with the things we develop nowadays; technological development is moving so fast that people are no longer surprised by anything. When it comes to our other innovations in the barn, most people still have the impression that we pull them out of a warehouse or something."
Keeping passion and drive going
As he said, Karel is less of a die-hard follow-through developer than an innovative thinker. If the robot ends up in, as he puts it, stable water, Karel will move to the Special Products unit, which will then be set up. “We have continued to develop things for the milking robot, but I have also shifted my focus to other innovations for inside the barn,” he says. That unit is specifically designed to safeguard the creative and innovative power within Lely. A few years later, it was transformed into today’s Lely Technologies NV. For Karel, where he sits within the company does not matter.
“As long as I can continue to puzzle, tinker, invent and develop. Passion and drive should keep you going. So then it is also nice to have Alexander as my boss: he gives me space and asks the right questions. I am really proud when I see what rolls out of the factory these days. These are all ideas that were born at Lely Technologies. After all, that is the company’s incubator for new inventions. How does that work? I see it as a game of ping-pong with people around me, apparently that’s how my brain works. You see a problem and then you brainstorm about it together until you arrive at a possible solution. Needless to say, I also find myself stimulated by my surroundings, things I see and read and experience.”
"After all, Lely Technologies is the company’s incubator for new inventions."