The market for machines used for golf course maintenance is a global business worth several billions, in which often resorts to traditional methods. However, the Finnish Turf Gamechanger will bring a machine to the market this year that will introduce a completely new method for the care of grass areas. The method will replace up to eight golf course maintenance stages with a single machine, and it will be suitable for the maintenance of other high-quality grass areas.
Ilkka Kaivosoja, an agrologist and long-time greenskeeper in Finland, has been monitoring golf course construction and maintenance since the 1980s. While working as a course consultant for the Finnish Golf Union and visiting more than 100 courses in Finland, he could see how poor the efficiency was in all the course maintenance activities. The maintenance equipment was particularly restricting.
The first drafts of the method, which eventually led to the establishment of a start-up company in 2017 with long-term golf executive Pasi Kristiansson, date back to this time. After Ilkka Kankkunen, MSc (Eng) and an expert in international business, joined the company a couple of years later, the development quickly led to the point where the first machine is all but ready for test use. Provided no surprises appear during testing, the sales of Turf Gamechanger will start during 2021.
Regardless of the soil and prevailing conditions, course maintenance with the current methods requires several separate machines, workers and logistical management when various materials are removed, brought into and taken away from the course. A recurring weekly chore is cutting the grass, for which different mowers are currently used. Of these, fairway and rough mowers can be replaced with mowing units that fit the Turf Gamechanger machine chassis. Thanks to the chassis structure, which is suitable for sensitive turfs, and comprehensive machine automation, Turf Gamechanger machines can be equipped with 11 units, while the largest fairway mowers of today have 7 units.
The eight work stages of special maintenance can be combined in a single machine with the Turf Gamechanger method, carried out with a single run. During a course’s life cycle, its condition inevitably degenerates, regardless of how well and how frequently it is maintained. Depressions collecting water start to form and the shapes of fairways change, until an expensive and time-consuming renovation is required. At worst, this can mean closing the course for years and investing millions in its reconstruction. The Turf Gamechanger method can address these issues during special maintenance operations, and stop and even reverse this development, eliminating the need for renovation.
The second machine unit of Turf Gamechanger takes care of logistics: the accumulated waste and the sand needed for maintenance can be transported with the same unit to the work location and back. In addition, loading and unloading the machine take place simultaneously.
Turf Gamechanger aims to compact the whole course maintenance chain and to combine all work stages in one, as well as to create a machine chassis that can be used for nearly all the maintenance work a golf course needs. The change in the overall method can be compared to how forestry methods have changed from the 1970s to the present day.
When examining the benefits of the multi-purpose machine by adding up all the factors affecting course maintenance – the time spent on maintenance, labour, logistics and equipment – and calculating their annual cost, the Turf Gamechanger method can provide savings of at least 30% in staff, material and investment costs. In addition, even though the savings are significant, they are really a by-product, because the central factor in developing the method has been the considerably better quality of maintenance work.
– Players go to the golf course to relax and spend time without the distractions of everyday life. However, maintenance work requires dry weather, which means the work needs to be done when the players are there.
– In fact, the most critical factor in addition to improved quality is the saving of time. When this train of maintenance operations, with its eight work stages, can be compacted into one while also speeding up the process, it’s clear there will be more room for the players. This, in turn, improves the courses’ utilisation rate, says Ilkka Kaivosoja of the overall benefits.
After the two Ilkkas met Comatec representatives at the Subcontracting Trade Fair in the autumn of 2019, things progressed rapidly. In practice, things have moved from the concept stage to a complete proof-of-concept demo machine, to be tested in the spring once the golf season begins, within a single calendar year. Comatec has allocated more than 6,000 hours to the project, and more than ten design engineers have worked in the project’s different areas.
For the design engineers, the work has been an engineer’s dream. With no corresponding device from competitors available anywhere in the world, the engineering work started from scratch. However, the design was based on a carefully considered concept, helping to avoid any idle time and the unnecessary back-and-forth processing of items. For Comatec, the project has also meant a truly multidisciplinary effort from mechanics to electrical design, automation, hydraulics, safety and technical calculations.
The most central part of the machine is the patented hopper, which allows its volume to be adjusted as the work progresses. It is precisely the hopper’s versatility and adjustability that enable up to eight work stages to be implemented in one go. Another of the machine’s important innovations is its seven-wheel chassis, which does not put a strain on sensitive turf surfaces.
The attractive starting point has also been a challenge, since there have been no help or ready-made models to be used anywhere. According to Ville Linna, the chief design engineer for the project at Comatec, the construction of the entire drive system and transmission in the chassis required especially careful consideration.
– The machine contains six hydraulic motors that had to be made to drive correctly. Driving straight ahead was easily accomplished. However, when turning, adjusting the driving power transmission so that the motors worked evenly and in sync caused more trouble than usual, Linna says.
– Here, the solution was to divide the traction motors into separate hydraulic circuits and use load-sharing valves between them, controlled by advanced machine automation. This solution provides the most even traction on sensitive turf surfaces in varying driving conditions.
The concept itself also required a lot of mechanical design. All the functions had to fit into a small package so that the machine’s equipment layout would not become too large. The end result of the collaboration is a machine that implements practically every element of the original concept, created to a tight schedule.
– As an innovator, I had a huge number of ideas, and I’d been thinking about whether they could be implemented in practice. The concept was clear to us, but how to create a machine based on it was beyond our expertise. The more detailed the process has become, the larger the role the engineers’ skills have played. I imagined that an engineering company would be strictly fact-based and restricted in a certain sense, but Comatec has been very open-minded about everything.
– When the concept was frozen in June 2020, I was amazed that everything we wanted could fit in the framework I’d been developing for decades. In fact, the design work has resulted in the implementation of nearly every planned item, Kaivosoja says.
According to Jyrki Perälä, who is managing the project at Comatec, there has been very close cooperation with the customer.
– We have meetings with the customer at least twice a week. A new 3D model is prepared for each week to help the customer monitor the progress of the design in real time. At the same time, we get constant feedback to tell us we’re on the right track. Any unnecessary detours can thus be avoided in the design work.
– A start-up company acts at a different speed than a large established operator. Agility, constant communication and open cooperation have been the factors that have enabled us to get to this point in such a short time, Ilkka Kankkunen adds.
Turf Gamechanger brings maintenance methods into this millennium also for automation. The machine uses automation connected to a geographic information system. Thus, it collects measurement data from the soil and vegetation, and sends it to the back-end system. The system then processes the data and returns it to the machine as operating instructions and adjustment values.
Nowadays, another important factor is the sustainability of the technology employed. As a result, the power source is a 3.6 l diesel engine that meets the requirements of even the strictest countries.
– We have a roadmap for various functionalities and areas of development for a long way into the future. A hybrid or electric motor is one of them. Once we can see how hybrids work in other work machine applications and sufficiently good technology becomes available, we will consider this as an option, Ilkka Kaivosoja points out.
If this year’s test runs go as planned, the machine’s production and sales will start. According to Ilkka Kankkunen, the first customers will probably be found in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. There is strong faith in the possibilities offered by the method.
– Our greatest obstacle will be a mental one. Golf is a very traditional sport, and there are still courses in the world where it is required to rake bunkers with a wooden-pronged rake. Thus, we will start with early adopters, and once a younger generation, which has been using computers from an early age, takes over the management of courses, they certainly won’t want to go back to the old ways.
The plan is to increase the delivery volumes to several hundred machines within a few years.
– We’ve been collaborating with Finnish greenskeepers since the early stages. There have been no showstoppers, and everyone knows that course management will need to change. The financial situation of Finnish golf courses is such that if we can offer cost savings of more than 30%, it will certainly be welcomed. The number one question has been ‘When will it be available for purchase?’, says Ilkka Kaivosoja on the future.