Penn State agribusiness students gauge consumer acceptance of robotic lawnmowers

Lisa Duchene
November 05, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Will customers of lawn-mowing services accept robotic, autonomous lawnmowers cutting the lawns at their homes with no human operator nearby? Eichenlaub Inc., an upscale landscape firm in Pittsburgh, is counting on agribusiness management students in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences to find out.

Dan Eichenlaub, founder and president of the design-build-maintenance landscape firm, is studying the new technology as a potential solution to a tight labor market.

"You can have the best technology in the world, but if no customer wants it at their property, it isn't a solution," Eichenlaub explained to 70 agribusiness management students who visited the firm's headquarters this fall for a hands-on, experiential learning project organized by the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. "Is the market adoption going to be there?"

As part of a live venture case, agribusiness students over a two-week period interviewed Eichenlaub's customers about their perceptions of autonomous mowing and now are analyzing this feedback to develop recommendations. The firm is studying the automatic mowers as a potential solution to a labor shortage affecting its lawn-mowing service contracts. 

Husqvarna, the manufacturer of the autonomous mowers Eichenlaub is testing, demonstrated the company's Automower for students. The machines operate rain or shine, which helps lawns look good during rainy summers, although Husqvarna recommends storing the mower inside during extreme weather.

But there are also potential risks. Customers are likely to be concerned about what happens when a child or pet is in the path of the machinery. The Automower is designed to stop and turn around when it encounters an obstacle and to stop automatically if the mower is lifted up or turned over.

Ben Patterson, a Penn State senior animal science major from York, thought of another risk: Some customers may be more interested in buying their own automatic machine to maintain their lawn instead of paying a lawn-service contractor.

Traveling to Pittsburgh to meet Eichenlaub, see the company's operation and see the Automower at work was all better and more valuable than watching the best PowerPoint presentation in a classroom, said Moira McCullough, a senior agribusiness management major from Birdsboro, who also will graduate with a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Getting students out to real businesses to witness entrepreneurship and innovation as it unfolds is essential to their education, said College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Rick Roush, who identified this need a few years ago. Roush supported and attended the day-trip to Eichenlaub in Pittsburgh and the fall 2017 trip to Sterman Masser Potato Farms.

Rick Roush addresses agribusiness students

College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Rick Roush speaks to agribusiness management students about innovation on a visit to Eichenlaub Inc., a landscape services firm in Pittsburgh.

IMAGE: Angela Barr, courtesy of Eichenlaub Inc.

"Our alumni are leading transformative change in agriculture," said Roush. "Dan Eichenlaub and his team are a shining example of innovation in practice and presented a valuable opportunity for our students to learn about how to build a business."

Before taking entrepreneurship classes, McCullough thought the word meant opening your own business — but she now understands entrepreneurship as identifying a "pain point" and coming up with a solution.

Finding enough employees to mow and maintain customers' lawns is the pain point in the case study McCullough and her fellow students are working on.

Robotic mowers may solve that problem, Eichenlaub told students. He walked them through all of the factors the company had to consider: Whether the mowers represent value — a combination of cost and intangibles like improved quality; whether the machine will operate as expected; and the risks, including customer acceptance, potential changes in the costs of liability insurance, and potential delays or costs of government regulation.

As Eichenlaub spoke to students outside the company's main office, the orange and grey, battery-powered Husqvarna Automower quietly moved around a patch of grass. Picture a sleek unit with a sculpted top, shaped like the bottom of an upright vacuum cleaner, but larger — yet smaller than a standard push mower. There is no handle, no cord, no limb-threatening blades and little sound.

Instead, a lithium-ion battery powers the machine, which mows within installed wires that define the mow and no-mow zones of a space. It snips a bit at a time — so little at once that there are no clumps of cut grass and no stripes.

The technology promises a healthier lawn, is energy-efficient and is better for the environment because there are no emissions from a gasoline engine, says Brian Luzier, commercial sales manager for Husqvarna.

Students learned how Eichenlaub previously invested in technology, such as design software that allows landscape designers to show clients a full video simulation of how their finished project will look and sound. Many of these high-end outdoor living designs are considerable investments. Clients are able to obtain a more realistic view of their desired landscape through the use of design software and by examining the materials, water, lighting and plant features that are available at the Eichenlaub design studio.

The showroom is centrally located in Pittsburgh's Millvale neighborhood, separate from Eichenlaub's headquarters. The main property includes an office building, greenhouses to store potted plant material, a shop, trucks, tools and equipment.

"We may have to overcome our natural tendencies with learned behaviors in order to be successful in business."

— Dan Eichenlaub, founder and president of Eichenlaub Inc.

As Eichenlaub — a 1978 Penn State graduate in architectural engineering — toured students through the property, he shared business advice. More than 40 years ago, he and his brothers started the landscape company to help them all pay their way through college. Eichenlaub also co-founded AgRecycle, Pennsylvania's largest source-separated composting operation.

Eichenlaub and Dan Stearns, a College of Agricultural Sciences professor emeritus of landscape contracting, with others co-founded LandOpt, which brings business management processes to independent landscape contractors around the country.

"Be focused on what you do to succeed," Eichenlaub said. "You can't be everything to everybody."

Regarding innovation, he advised: "Study! Think about the purpose of innovation. Sometimes the benefit is improving quality — not always saving money."

Eichenlaub also addressed the successful mentality of a business leader: "We may have to overcome our natural tendencies with learned behaviors in order to be successful in business," he said.

"Dan Eichenlaub and his team provided our students with an enriched learning experience," said Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar and the students' professor. "Our students will be better prepared to excel in their careers as a result."

The College of Agricultural Sciences' Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program teaches entrepreneurship as a valuable mindset and skill set that helps students prepare for any career path — whether they intend to create and run their own businesses or strive to be innovative within a company of any size.

The program offers undergraduate students many ways to explore entrepreneurship, including meeting entrepreneurs and learning their stories, competing in the Ag Springboard business pitch contest, taking entrepreneurship classes and minoring in entrepreneurship and innovation. Across the College of Agricultural Sciences community, the program adds value to new ideas and research discoveries by creating entrepreneurial success.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 05, 2018