Dave Knight is Global Director of Turf & Utility Platform Engineering at John Deere. He, along with his product development teams, design and deliver world-class machines and equipment that make neighborhood lawns look like fairways at TPC Deere Run PGA golf course; enable professional landscape contractors to create meticulously manicured works of art; and help the farmer outside of town haul mulch, rock, and brush safer and faster.
For Knight, the drive to provide customers with all they need to mow, maintain, and move in environmentally-friendly ways began long ago on his family’s land in northeast Ohio.
Engines, Elbow Grease, and Experimentation
As a young boy, Knight recalls a tornado tearing through his neighborhood and snapping large hardwood trees like matchsticks.
“After the storm, Dad went out and bought a used late 1950s model John Deere 420 Crawler,” said Knight. “It was an unbelievable machine. It cleared trees, pulled stuck logging trucks out of the mud, and dug a foundation for our new house.”
The old crawler also taught Knight lessons he just couldn’t learn in school.
“We had to solve problems on-the-fly and learned to improvise and innovate,” he recalled. “For example, we had a lightning strike that caused our well water pump to fail. So, we asked ourselves, ‘what if we make some fixtures and use the crawler loader to lift the 100 feet of pipe out of the well?’ We figured out, right then and there, that we could use the crawler to get the job done. That machine was my first real experience with engineering.”
Dad set high standards and supplied plenty of engineering know-how and Mom, an educator, taught Knight to communicate effectively and value everyone’s contributions. Their combined influence taught the value of confident humility, humor, and hard work. Together, those qualities would come in handy for another project.
The Chevy Vega.
If you’re not familiar with the Vega, it was a wildly popular car in the 1970s. Millions of the small and sharp-looking vehicles flew out of dealer showrooms from Seattle to Savannah. But the Vega quickly gained a reputation of being a rust bucket whose engine was woefully underpowered and particularly problematic.
“I remember back in high school, an upperclassman came up to me after practice and said, ‘Hey, Dave, I hear you know a few things about cars. Can you help me out?’ Sure, I said, as long as you buy the pizza.”
The next Friday night, Knight and his friend tore the Vega’s engine apart and found that it was ruined.
“A few days later, I asked this guy about the Vega,” he explained. “He said he could get $25 for it at the junkyard. So, I gave him $25, and we towed it to my house. Even though the engine was seized, we eventually got it running again.”
While the entire Vega model line would eventually end up on the scrap heap of automotive aberrations, Knight’s auto experience – combined with the 420 Crawler – inspired a love for engineering that endures to present day.
“If you asked me about my hopes and dreams back in middle school and then told me I’d be in this job at John Deere,” said Knight, “I probably would have laughed pretty hard, because this is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Knight’s first job at Deere was product development manager for compact utility tractors in Augusta, Georgia. Since then, he’s progressed to different jobs, all bound by a common thread: innovation.
“We’re always searching for new ways to innovate. In fact, Innovation is one of the company’s core values, and Deere has many substantial processes in place to foster innovation,” Knight said. “A few years ago, we heard feedback from employees, and as a Turf & Utility engineering leadership team, we wanted to do more. We benchmarked how some IT companies were doing innovation and decided to give our engineers some time and a modest budget to work on whatever they thought would solve customer problems. This was yet another tool in the innovator’s toolbox.”
“Slowly but surely, the Genius Hour concept took off, and we’re now starting to see more innovation come to life,” Knight said.
Generating more than 50 concepts since its debut, Genius Hour continues to add products and value to the Turf & Utility portfolio. As an example, several concepts on utility vehicles are now being manufactured. Not bad for an idea Knight admits was a bit “crazy” at first.
“We’re seeing some great ideas not just from engineers, but also from our technicians in the labs and prototype shops, he said. “I’ve had a number of engineers tell me that being empowered to work on something they think is important is really appreciated.
“It teaches all of us that innovation can happen anywhere,” he added.
The Power of STEM and Sustainability
Innovation relies on education. For Knight, building a more secure and sustainable world means we need to inspire a new generation of thinkers to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math-related careers.
“STEM occupations are very important because the world has many challenges,” Knight said. “The global population will exceed nine billion people in the next few decades, and Deere is working hard to create new products and technology to meet the demand for food, shelter, and infrastructure. STEM will be vital to help empower a new generation of innovators.”
Knight is deeply involved in STEM initiatives at high schools and universities and participates in John Deere Inspire – the company’s global STEM program, which is increasing the number of talented young adults in STEM-related fields. He’s also focusing on increasing diverse talent in engineering in the U.S. and globally.
“There are women buying our equipment and operating successful businesses,” Knight said. “It’s vital to have a diverse group of engineers manufacturing, designing, and selling our machines. We put a lot of effort into encouraging female participation and hold numerous Introduce a Girl to Engineering events and Women in Engineering meetings. My wife and both of our daughters are in STEM-related healthcare occupations and are working hard to improve the quality of life for patients every day. It’s a big topic of conversation around the dinner table.” Knight also believes STEM is closely tied with sustainable product design.
“This is very important for me, because I want to leave the world a little better for future generations. Innovation and STEM education can help solve big global challenges.”
Protecting the environment is another global challenge that weighs heavily on Knight. Growing up in northeast Ohio, he saw environmental devastation firsthand. In the 1960s, Knight remembers the Cuyahoga River catching fire and Lake Erie becoming so heavily polluted that it was described as “dead.” Suffice it to say it made a lasting impression.
Deere’s commitment to its customers and the environment resonates with Knight. And for much of his career he’s helped deliver vehicles that meet more stringent emissions and environmental regulations.
“Deere is working hard to reduce greenhouse gases at our facilities, reduce water use, recycle more, and use design for environment principles on our products to improve things like fuel economy and efficiency,” he said. “This extends to being good stewards of the land, seas, and air as our ecosystems are all interconnected.”
“Environmental sustainability could be the biggest challenge of them all – it ties to food production, energy, weather, social stability, ecosystems, and all living things,” he said.
“Make Sure Every Day Counts”
There are two things Knight loves more than work.
His family and close friends.
“We do some fun, adventurous, and fitness-focused activities together,” Knight said. “We boat, waterski, fish, and just took up mountain biking.”
Knight cherishes every second with his family. Time, you see, wasn’t always on his side.
“I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in my early thirties, and it changed my life because the prognosis usually isn’t very good,” said Knight. “It’s a very aggressive cancer. At that time, my daughters were both young and, in my mind, I started writing notes for their 16th birthdays, college graduations, and their wedding days because I wasn’t sure how things would turn out.
“My wife made me go to the dermatologist, and, thankfully, we caught it early. Thanks to her, I’m still here today.”
For both professional and personal life, after malignant melanoma, Knight started to think of his time on the planet not in terms of months or years but in terms of days. It reinforced that there is no guarantee on what could happen tomorrow.
“It reminded me to be passionate, have fun, and learn a lot along the journey,” he said. “Make every day count.”