What has Changed with Turf Care Machinery Over the Years? by Ian Sumpter
Turf care machine

Published on

January 29 2018

“Not much has changed over the years since Edwin Budding’s design first brought cylinder technology to the turf care industry.” I often hear this statement and have said it myself from time to time when speaking at seminars internationally. But is the statement correct and is it right for the turf care industry to continue to think that nothing has changed? If not, what changes have we seen since Edwin Budding’s original designs?

From a pure engineering perspective, I agree the process of a cylinder rotating and cutting turf has not changed and for that we owe Edwin Budding praise. Edwin Budding was a British engineer from Eastington, Stroud. He is renowned as the English inventor of the lawnmower in 1830 and was granted a British patent on 31 August of that year. In true British engineering, he obtained the idea after seeing a machine in a local cloth mill which used a cutting cylinder (or bladed reel) mounted on a bench to trim cloth to make a smooth finish after weaving. Up until that point, the scythe had been the only option for cutting grass, so Budding’s design was primarily to cut the grass on sports grounds and extensive gardens, as a superior alternative to the scythe.

So, from an engineering perspective, is it true to claim that nothing has changed since that first British designed mower? We know there have been huge advancements worldwide in engineering. If we acknowledge the huge progress made in the automotive and aircraft industries, at some point the generic technology that is developed, finds its way through to the turf industry. Embracing specific industry engineering creates our own advancement in technology.

Man on a Turf Mower
The huge progress in automotive and aircraft technology has filtered through into the turf industry.

As an operator of mowing equipment since the early 1980s, have I noticed huge changes? From a mowing perspective, I get on a machine, engage units and cut grass, so I would say I have noticed very little difference over my 30 years. Looking behind the scenes, which I have been privileged to do for 15 years of my career by working with a turf care manufacturer, I can give a completely different answer.

In brief, the principle of turf care equipment in its raw form, has not changed. The way we apply that principle has been morphing into what we see in modern mowers today. I remember the time when we cut golf greens at around 6mm in the winter and 4mm in the summer. In recent years, due in part to new fine turf grass species, customer demands and changing climate, we have witnessed machinery expected to achieve shorter cuts throughout the year. In some cases, golf greens are down to as low as 2mm. To meet these demands, manufacturers engineered a mechanical solution that can achieve a consistent cut as low as 2mm.

As well as being able to cut down to lower turf heights, the mowers have needed to work on a growing, living, undulating surface, accommodating multiple variables. To cope with any slight undulation, the cutting unit has had to be engineered as a floating head with a newly designed thinner bottom blade, strong enough to cope with the task. The solution has resulted in a completely redesigned hand mower that can cut down to 1.6mm.

A 1970s greens machine.
A 1970s greens machine. It is actually one of the first Toro machines imported into the UK and restored a couple of years ago.

Over time, several changes to the set-up process have been developed. Bottom blade to reel adjustment and height of cut adjustment have been changing over the years. Engineers have been developing processes to make adjustments easier and maintain quality of cut for longer.

We have seen quick adjustment designs that make adjusting heights of cut a fast operation by using a power drill. A worm gear translates multiple revolutions into precise increments so a power drill can be used in place of physically turning a spanner. The worm gear also locks in the height-of-cut, so it can't shake loose. Another innovation has been a magnetic bottom blade which makes the process of changing blades much easier. This solution allows knives to be easily and regularly swapped for topdressing applications or to accommodate changing conditions. It is a solution which can save time. Instead of unscrewing, removing and torquing knives back into position, the knife can be popped off for maintenance, perfectly aligned and replaced. To improve on current cutting units, engineers have modified geometry to improve blade twist. They have changed the bed knife top angle to achieve a smaller land area between the reel and bed knife and they have also changed the reel blade rake angle.

Ian, who has spent more than 30 years in horticulture believes the principle of turf care equipment in its raw form, has not changed. The way we apply that principle has been morphing into what we see in modern mowers today.

Using electronic control units (ECUs) has made the electrical systems simpler, removing relays and reducing electrical wiring and components. We see modern mowers utilising drive by wire as the traction control can be adjusted by sending an input signal to the ECU which sends an output to the fuel governor controlling the engine speed. These ECUs have allowed mowers to have diagnostic capabilities and have helped to reduce mechanical linkage and hydraulic components. Newer, more capable electrics, have more advanced diagnostic capabilities than ever before and when fully understood through training, give end users increased capability to fix faults without the need to plug in diagnostic tools.

Computer diagnostics on a modern mower.
Computer diagnostics on a modern mower.

Using information technology and wireless systems, this diagnostic capability on mowers is now extending into reporting systems. The manager is able to view error codes of a machine on his phone or tablet and plan accordingly. 

With the automotive industries drive towards hybrid and electric powered vehicles, we have seen a similar move within the turf care industry. Engineers have developed electrically powered mowers which are capable of working in commercial environments. These are in addition to smaller engines, coupled with battery technology and onboard generators, which can produce the horse power requirements for today’s larger amenity areas. So it is apparent, that every aspect of the modern turf care industry is being influenced by modern engineering whether it is re-engineered solutions currently available from other industries or new engineering solutions.

If you're interested in learning more about the mowers - including ride-on, pedestrian, and combi-tractor mowers - check out our range of training courses.

Ian Sumpter has worked in the amenity horticulture sector for more than 30 years. He now works as a freelance training consultant - both advising on and delivering training. He is on the executive committee of the Institute of Agricultural Engineers as a trustee and is actively involved in developing the industry.