Over 1500 people work at the Lely Group, 200 of them are engineers and one of them is Lotte Capelle; a 27-year-old, ambitious lady with a love for robotics. After studying Mechanical Engineering and earning a Master’s in System and Control at the TU Delft, she started working at Lely. The company’s prediction for the future is that farming needs to become more precise – often dubbed as precision farming. The need for robots that create better and more precise results, thus the need for talents like Lotte, is therefore a top priority.
But why did Lotte choose Lely? What makes Lely an interesting tech company? We met up for a cup of coffee in the Lely canteen to talk about her path that led her from the student halls in Delft to the Lely Campus in Maassluis.
As an engineer you have a lot of opportunities to work for different companies. Why did you choose to start your career at Lely?
There are many robot companies that are starting to develop something, but Lely is one of the biggest companies around and has been making robots since 1992, so they already have innovative robots in place.
I have been working at Lely for 14 months now, and its great fun. I get a lot of freedom to develop myself. I didn’t work in a software environment before, so I still have a lot to learn, but my team is very supportive. They give me the time to figure out for myself what I really like and to discover which aspects of developing software suit me.
What, according to you, is the most edgy invention Lely has produced?
I’m not sure I have one favourite invention. I think it’s cool that Lely is leading the way in farming innovation and robotics. If you look at the robots that are now on the market, Lely’s robots are often the first in its sort. Many robots are based on Lely’s design. Sometimes it’s surprising how much they look like ours.
Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say.
Then I guess Lely is extremely flattered haha!
Where does your love for robotics stem from?
During my studies, I was captivated by the technology that makes it possible to develop autonomous self-driving cars, which, in turn, developed into an interest in robotics. What I really enjoy is to develop the communication that sets physical robots in motion and the mathematical challenges associated with getting them to do what we need them to do. The combination of dynamics and programming fulfils the technical side of my interests. But for me, what makes robotics even more fun is that you are able to visualise what you develop and see the results quickly.
What do you do at Lely, and what do you like about it?
I’m a junior software engineer in the Vector team. The Vector team develops the robot for automatic feeding. It brings food to the cows and enables autonomous, efficient feeding. I’m writing the software and my primary task is developing the logic to make the robot do what it’s supposed to be doing.
I really like the teamwork: working together to find solutions, improve the software and learn along the way. The team is important to me. I also very much enjoy writing the software that enables my robot to do new things that it couldn’t do before.
What does an innovation process look like when you start writing a code?
It usually starts with feedback from the field about things that might not be optimal or need improving. ‘What is important’, ‘what is less important’ and ‘how can we improve’ are all topics that we deal with on a daily basis. Next, we make a list of things that need to be developed and assign deadlines to them. One by one, piece by piece, we find solutions. After we have solved the software problems, we test it ourselves. If it’s properly tested at the campus, we send the robot to the farm again. Sometimes, we accompany the robot to test if it really works and if it’s reliable enough on the farm. The controlled environment we have here can vary from the real-life circumstances in the field. If the robot is reliable enough, we will leave it there and we hope we won’t hear back again because that means we have done our work right.
Cross industry-innovation is something that Lely holds high. Do you experience that when you work at Lely?
Yes, in the company there are many different people with varied skill sets and backgrounds. There are people that know about farms and there are people that know about the technical stuff. We gain and exchange knowledge derived from real-life experiences on the farm and our field of IT constantly.
What do you see as Lely’s biggest challenge now and in the future?
I think the biggest challenge we have today is that there are many robots around the globe that have been at farms for years and will be there for years to come. If, however, we want to improve and make new robots, they must cooperate with the ‘older’ robots on the same farm. That’s a challenge.
Also, we deal with all sorts of farms in many different countries. Therefore, our robots have to be able to deal with lots of different circumstances. In Italy, temperatures can sometimes reach 40 degrees. In Norway, the temperature can drop to minus 30. The robots, however, must be able to work in both conditions so we have to make sure the electronics work in every environment.
Why do you think startups should sign up for the ‘Feed the Future’ challenge?
Because of the amount of knowledge and experience Lely has accumulated in developing so many products over the years. The startups can really make use of all the inhouse expertise at Lely.
Secondly, we know how to get a product to the market. I’ve often seen that the main problem in many robotic companies is that the development process goes well until they bring the product to the market. I believe we’re very good at developing things that are useful in the field. So, people at Lely can help you answer questions about market fit and more.
Thirdly, because we make everything here, we have many different departments with a broad range in skills and expertise. If there’s a startup developing a piece of hardware for example, it could benefit from talking to the software department and vice versa.
And lastly, we have a very nice work environment. At the end of the day, the people are what makes the real difference and Lely, subsequently, as a company such a pleasure to work for!