Posted: October 30, 2018

Owner of Eichenlaub, Inc., teaches students how he weighs new technology.

Agribusiness management students get an up-close look at autonomous lawn mowers on a visit to Eichenlaub, Inc., an upscale landscape services firm in Pittsburgh. Students are helping Eichenlaub evaluate the mowers. (Photo by Angela Barr)

Agribusiness management students get an up-close look at autonomous lawn mowers on a visit to Eichenlaub, Inc., an upscale landscape services firm in Pittsburgh. Students are helping Eichenlaub evaluate the mowers. (Photo by Angela Barr)

Will customers of lawn-mowing services accept robotic, autonomous lawn mowers cutting the lawns at their homes with no human operator nearby?

The president of Eichenlaub, Inc., an upscale landscape firm in Pittsburgh, is studying the new technology as a potential solution to a tight labor market -- and counting on Penn State agribusiness management students in the College of Agricultural Sciences to interview his customers and gauge their acceptance of the new technology.

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

Eichenlaub -- a Penn State 1978 architectural engineering grad -- is founder and president of the design-build-maintenance landscape firm.

As part of a live venture case, agribusiness students over the last few weeks have interviewed Eichenlaub's customers about their perceptions of autonomous mowing and are analyzing their feedback into recommendations. The firm is studying the automatic mowers as a potential solution to a labor shortage.

Watch the demo:

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 auto-mower. The Automower® is designed to stop and turn around when it encounters an obstacle and to automatically stop if the mower is lifted up or turned over.

About 70 agribusiness management students are helping Eichenlaub, Inc., — an upscale landscape firm in Pittsburgh — study whether customers will accept robotic, autonomous lawnmowers.

Into the Field

Ben Patterson, a Penn State senior animal science major, thought of another risk: Some customers may be more interested in buying their own auto-mower 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 auto-mower 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, who will also 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 Richard Roush, who identified this need a few years ago. Dean Roush supported and attended the day-trip to Eichenlaub in Pittsburgh and the fall 2017 trip to Sterman Masser Potato Farms.

"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 now understands entrepreneurship as identifying a "pain point" and coming up with a solution.

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

Auto-mowers may solve that problem, Eichenlaub told students, and 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 it is expected to, 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, and 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 better for the environment because there are no emissions from a gasoline engine, says Brian Luzier, Commercial Sales Manager of Husqvarna.

Students learned how Eichenlaub previously invested in technology like 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, shop, trucks, tools and equipment.

About 70 agribusiness management students toured the landscape services firm's operation and HQ in Pittsburgh during a visit in Sept. 2018. As an experiential learning case study, the students are helping Eichenlaub study whether customers will accept autonomous lawn mowers.

Dan Eichenlaub showed students how tools and equipment were grouped by task so that work crews could depart early every morning, without wasting time, and know they have everything they need.

As Eichenlaub 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 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."

"Dan Eichenlaub and his team provided our students with an enriched learning experience," said Dr. 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."

About Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences

The E&I 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 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 Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences community, the E&I Program adds value to new ideas and research discoveries by creating entrepreneurial success.

For more on the E&I Program.