Amy Jones: Engineering Heavy Machines

This IEEE member designs, programs, and drives vehicles for agriculture and construction

6 October 2014

Ask IEEE Member Amy Jones what she likes about her job, and she will tell you that it connects engineering to a noble purpose. “We make machines that help people feed themselves and build their homes,” says Jones, a senior systems engineer with John Deere, a manufacturer of agricultural and heavy construction equipment, based in Dubuque, Iowa.

She also finds her job exciting and just plain fun. When she’s not on a teleconference with colleagues overseas or at her desk parsing through hundreds of lines of code, Jones can be found driving really big vehicles like excavators and tree-felling machines to test the software she has built for them. She does this at John Deere’s test facility, where it feels, she says, “like digging in a big mud pit in the middle of a forest.”

In 2012, Jones led the team that developed the software for a new line of excavators for customers in China and Russia. This earned the 27-year-old Jones recognition as one of this year’s New Faces of Engineering, an award from the National Society of Professional Engineers that recognizes the accomplishments of engineers under the age of 30. Each year, members of professional engineering societies, including IEEE, nominate a number of their members for the honor. IEEE Senior Member Steve Watkins, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla, Jones’s alma mater, nominated her to represent IEEE-USA.

MASSIVE CODES

Today’s late-model cars are loaded with software for controlling an array of features, such as the brakes, climate control system, fuel gauge, and radio. This requires tens of thousands of lines of code. That’s nothing compared to what’s needed by heavy machinery. “One of our tractors uses more lines of code than the first space shuttle,” she says.

That immense amount of software runs on multiple-microprocessor chip-based controllers. Each controller runs several dozen electrical components.

Jones is responsible for the entire electronics systems in John Deere’s new excavators. She helped take the machines’ five controllers from the drawing board all the way to production, guiding an international team of software developers and design engineers. In particular, she spends a lot of time on software verification and validation.

“I have to go through the requirements and make sure the software does what it’s designed to do,” she says. “That’s verification. I also have to make sure it meets the customer’s needs. That’s validation. I ask, in effect, ‘Have we built the right thing?’”

The excavators went to market last summer. But with software updates and new functions being added continually, software testing takes a big chunk of Jones’s time. And while excavators are her main project, she also helps test tree-felling machines and backhoes.

Jones runs computer simulations to see, for example, how a short circuit might affect the excavator’s operation. But mostly she is out on the machines, hooking up diagnostic gear to observe the system’s inner workings. She drives, digs, and dumps; tests everything from the vehicle’s headlights to its brakes; and checks how the machine works in tight corners and on slopes.

That the excavators are built in China has come with an exciting side benefit. “I’ve learned about a whole new culture,” she says. She traveled to the country in May 2013 to help with a factory start-up in Tianjin, a two-hour drive northwest of Beijing, and was to go again in September to start designing software for the next-generation excavator.

FROM AN EARLY AGE

Jones grew up outside St. Louis, home-schooled by her mother, a college professor, and father, an electrical engineer. She shared her father’s interests and was influenced by his passion.

“Whenever an appliance broke, we’d read the instruction manual and fix it together,” she says. “When I got older, we worked together installing the sound system in our church.”

At Missouri S&T, Jones double-majored in electrical and nuclear engineering before focusing solely on electrical engineering. One of her fondest memories from her time there was operating the campus nuclear reactor, starting it up and shutting it down for an introductory nuclear engineering course.

During a summer internship at John Deere, she worked on the electrical design of bulldozers. That was also the first time she got to operate a big machine.

“I was terrified,” she says. “I’d only been driving a car for two years and thought, ‘I hit a mailbox a few weeks ago, and you’re putting me in one of these?’”

The work was both interesting and rewarding, and she returned the next year to participate in a seven-month cooperative education program. But after earning her bachelor’s in 2008, she took a job at an electrical contractor closer to home in Missouri. She managed the electrical design of a new airport being built in Indianapolis before losing the job during the recession in 2009.

Soon after, she got in touch with her internship manager at John Deere, who hired her immediately. She moved to Iowa in 2010 and got her masters in electrical engineering online from Purdue University that same year. She plans to stay at John Deere for the long term.

In addition to her work, she loves mentoring college interns and newly hired graduates. She also devotes herself to engineering outreach programs, such as math competitions and other events that introduce girls to the field.

“Engineering is special to me,” she says. “I’ve operated a nuclear reactor, driven bulldozers, and gone to China, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if I hadn’t become an engineer.”

More importantly, she believes, “Engineering is the answer to a lot of very serious problems in the world and can help improve the quality of life.”

Learn More