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John Deere: Nothing runs like an AGV

On its Iowa manufacturing campus, John Deere is using AGVs to move tractor cabs down the assembly line. The result has been savings in labor, a safer work environment and improved quality.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
November 01, 2011

For years, manufacturers turned to automation to improve quality and take labor out of their processes. A robotic welding machine, overhead and floor-level conveyors, and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) made workers more efficient and allowed companies to increase production without increasing their workforce.

In 2010, John Deere set out to bring a new level of automation to the assembly line for its CommandView II tractor cabs at Deere’s historic Waterloo Works in Waterloo, Iowa, a huge manufacturing campus that includes six manufacturing facilities spread across 5.9 million square feet of floor space and 2,734 acres.

Deere was certainly looking for labor savings from automation, says Annie Olson, project manager for new cab assembly in Waterloo. But Deere was also in search of a solution that would bring a new level of safety and flexibility to its operations.

“The cabs that go on our 7R, 8R and 9R series of tractors are more complex as we add new levels of comfort and functionality for the operator,” says Olson, citing heated seats and Bluetooth technology as just two of the options demanded today. “We needed an assembly line that could grow with the technology we are adding to our cabs now and might add in the future.” 

A final consideration was to add automation that would improve the quality and reliability of Deere’s processes.

As an adherent of lean manufacturing, Deere looks to drive higher, more consistent levels of quality with each new investment.

The solution was a fleet of 35 automatic guided vehicles (Toyota Material Handling USA, that went live in September 2010. The AGVs serve as a flexible mobile assembly line, routing the cabs through as many as 12 assembly stations before a finished cab is delivered to the final tractor assembly line.

The result has been labor savings. With the new system, Deere has freed up the direct labor equivalent of one assembler, who used to move the cab from one station to the next, for more important value-added operations. More importantly, the AGVs have delivered a new level of flexibility and quality control to the cab assembly line. “Mistake proofing is very important to our processes,” says Olson. “The AGVs have allowed us to expand on our quality control systems and will allow us to add more technology in the future.”

Ensuring quality
John Deere has been producing tractors in Waterloo, Iowa, since it purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, manufacturer of the Waterloo Boy Tractor, in 1918. The facilities include a foundry, an engine works plant, a product engineering center, and tractor assembly for some of Deere’s most popular agricultural tractors. Deere employs 5,000 workers in Waterloo and ships its tractors to more than 130 countries. With $26 billion in total sales in 2010, John Deere is the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the world.

In early 2010, the cab manufacturing team in Waterloo began discussions for a new line for the CommandView II cab, which would be common to the 7R, 8R and 9R series.

Some automation had already been introduced into the cab assembly area when a manual system was replaced with an elevated conveyor. In the past, cabs were placed on a dolly that an assembly worker manually pushed from station to station. “Tractors are getting heavier all the time, as are the cabs that go on them,” says Olson. “If you’re manually pushing a cab day in and day out, it takes a toll.”

A manual line not only presented an ergonomic challenge, it created a challenge to Deere’s quality control program.

“We are a lean operation with a ‘no fault forward policy,’” says Olson. “If we discover a quality issue, we stop work on that cab until we address the issue.” When Deere was using a manual system of moving the cab along the line, it was difficult to ensure that all of the options were installed in the right cab and that all of the processes and quality checks were completed during the assembly process.

In part, that was addressed with the installation of a roller conveyor that sat about 2 feet off the floor. By automating the assembly line, Deere could also add technology to automatically capture data about processes on the line. However, the conveyor had limitations if something did go wrong.

“With the conveyor, we could lock down the line to prevent a cab from moving forward,” Olson says. “However, it was difficult to stop a cab on the conveyor mid line to make a repair. If we found a fault, we had to shut down the whole assembly process.”

What’s more, if the assembly line needed to change, say to add another assembly station for a new option, the whole conveyor line had to be moved. That was not easily accomplished.

Finally, with more available options than ever before, Deere needed a larger assembly line and extending the conveyor was not an option.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.