Autonomy Answers - Finlay Wood
This ongoing interview series features professionals within and outside of Trimble to share their insights, experiences and opinions about autonomy and its range of applications across a variety of industries.
Meet Finlay Wood - General Manager, Off-Road, Trimble Autonomy
As the General Manager, Off-Road Autonomy at Trimble, Finlay is responsible for creating cutting-edge autonomy solutions for the agriculture, automotive, and construction markets. He is driven by a passion for developing customer focused solutions and has led teams in multiple countries and industries in producing innovative solutions for over 18 years.
Questions for Trimble Autonomy Leaders:
How do you foresee the impact of autonomous solutions / technologies on consumer’s lives?The automation of tasks continues to make our lives easier. Whether it is a robot vacuum that cleans your house, or reducing the stress of a long drive because your car is doing half of the work for you, enabling autonomous capabilities will result in alleviating or taking away altogether the menial, dull tasks and allow consumers to focus on things they want to do.
In your opinion, where does an automated workflow in construction and/or agriculture make the biggest difference in the machine’s functionality / in the end user’s workflow?
Ultimately we’re not changing the core machine’s functionality. A compactor will continue to be used to compact ground, a sprayer will still be needed to spray crops. Autonomous solutions will allow our Trimble customers to simplify workflow and processes, in order to shift their focus to more important tasks. For example, a farmer using an autonomous sprayer can now sit in the cab and allow the sprayer to run independently while he thinks about crops to plant in the next year, or search for the cost of fertilizer or even arrange staff for the upcoming harvest. If the sprayer is doing 80% of the work, the farmer can be thinking of other things while actively working in the field.
On the construction side, autonomous technologies are able to help address the shortage of skilled construction workers. Another example would be for our construction customers - they have a similar problem to our agriculture customers in that they cannot find enough qualified operators. So in this case we are building on a workflow that already exists - where a dozer operator provides instructions to a compactor operator - and removing the need for the compactor operator. Our system will control the compactor while it is doing the dull and repetitive task of traversing the same ground multiple times until it reaches a certain compaction level, thus allowing the site supervisor to focus their precious resources on more value add activities.
Why did you choose engineering?
Simply put, I like to make stuff. Whether it is me directly, or together with a team, I like to make things I can be proud of and tell people about. Originally my career was making machines seen on the side of the highway, that I could literally point to while driving by and proudly state, “yes, I’m responsible for that.” Now, when I tell people I’m responsible for helping automate the way people farm and the way people build roads or work in construction, it’s an incredible feeling that I’m helping shift the landscape in those fields. Ultimately I’m excited to be bringing something new to market and know that what I’m building is making a positive impact on people’s lives and the environment.
What’s been your greatest professional accomplishment / what work are you most proud of?
Building the Trimble Autonomy technologies team has been immensely rewarding—developing the strategy, defining the product goals and building and developing a team that can execute on those initiatives. In just the last two years we’ve doubled the size and capacity of the team and are continuing to grow strong. It’s thrilling to be building out all of the critical pieces required for creating successful autonomous machines.
I’ve moved beyond the role of my engineering background to build out the autonomy division. My engineering background gives me the ability to think logically and analyze problems. Among other things, this helps me to understand what the customer is asking for and being able to translate that information into autonomous technologies and solutions that will actually make their lives easier.
Can you share a ‘breakthrough’ or ‘aha’ moment in your own journey of implementation of autonomous capabilities?
My breakthrough moment arrived after meeting with our customers and recognizing the value around implementing autonomous capabilities. Our customers are not necessarily looking for a robot that can do everything. A customer may think or say they want an autonomous “thing,” but what they truly want is to solve their core pain points - which are shared by the industries Trimble serves, and specifically revolve around finding qualified operators to carry out a quality job in a safe and efficient manner. We bring value to customers wherever they are on their journey to autonomy.
What would you tell someone who’s eager to work on autonomous solutions? What do they need to know to do this work?
Stay inquisitive. This is an area that is rapidly evolving. What you think you know right now, you will learn something in the next six months that could change that. You must be agile and continuously reevaluate to make sure you’re on the right path. The skill set required within creating autonomous solutions are varied - a specialist in machine learning, an expert in point clouds, an ability to generate cloud-based solutions for controlling machines etc. I recommend you pick an area that you are passionate about and think about how it can apply to autonomous applications. You must have the drive to want to understand more, always be learning and constantly thinking about how to solve customer problems. Most importantly, get started. There’s a huge amount of resources out there available for learning about technologies required for autonomy. Get involved. Be inquisitive.
Is there a favorite toy/game from your childhood that shaped your career path?
Lego, of course! I enjoyed building Lego sets, taking the pieces apart and rebuilding them. I never had a Lego model intact for more than a day or two. Playing with Lego satisfied my engineering mindset—build something, take it apart, and then make it better.
In your opinion, what’s the closest thing to real magic?
True creativity. It’s not a particular technology or product. It’s this idea that a person can look at a problem differently, and come up with a solution no one else has thought of. I love being surprised by someone’s unique solution. The ability for someone to create something that changes my perspective just by looking at it - to experience something that blows my mind that someone has built this, painted this, thought about this, drawn this, created this. That, to me, is true magic.