Saturday, June 17, 2023

Inside John Deere Harvester Works: Think your iPhone is cutting-edge? Try driving an X9 combine.

     You know how some guys are about visiting ballparks around the country? They'll go to, oh, Baltimore, just so they can put a Camden Yards notch on their belt. I've always been like that about publications. I still like to add a new scalp. Particularly a publication like Crain's Chicago Business, a first rate, must-read title. 
     It helps that I really, really enjoy visiting factories — I can't think of another journalist in Chicago who makes a habit of that — and have been itching to get to John Deere, a mere 170 miles west of here. I loved every aspect of this story, both immersing myself in the company lore and rich history of a vastly cool cultural icon. I loved figuring out how to present the complicated manufacture process. 
     It was difficult, when Crain's posted the original 3200-word story two weeks ago, not to post the first graph here and then link to their site. I wanted to crow. But they have a solid paywall, and it didn't seem fair to catch your interest and then frustrate you.
     Besides, I knew the Sun-Times would be running an abbreviated, 2100-word version. To pull off that double play, honestly, took some gymnastics. Running a big article in a competitor and then a version in our own paper is not exactly standard operating procedure. But fortune favors the bold, and it seems to have worked. This is running in Sunday's paper, and I am, in theory, free to do more work for Crain's, provided all involved have a chance to sign off.
     Enough prelude. I hope this is half as fun to read as it was to write:

     Don’t be fooled by the miles of grain blurring into one endless field as you blast by on Interstate 88.
     Those stalks might all look the same to you. But farm equipment today can perceive each individual plant and know which one’s a crop, which is a weed.
     A John Deere combine rattling across Gaesser Farms in Ankeny, Iowa, can recognize which type of grain is being harvested and consider the direction of the wind and the slope of the ground to orient itself with far more precision than the smartphone in your pocket can tell you where you’re standing.
     GPS will place your phone’s location to within a couple of feet. But a modern combine triangulates the signal with even greater accuracy.
      ”We apply everything within one inch of where it’s supposed to be,” said Chris Gaesser, who farms 5,400 acres.
     Such precision is necessary if you want to, say, spray herbicide on weeds but not on the dirt between them. A farm generates data faster than it generates alfalfa after a rain. Both must be handled properly to keep everything running smoothly.
     If your image of a farmer is a man in overalls and a straw hat driving a tractor, daydreaming of peach cobbler, welcome to 2023. A modern farmer is more likely to be making phone calls and checking the number of “likes” on his latest #FarmTok post while the combine drives itself.
     He doesn’t have much choice.
     ”You’re sitting in this thing 16 hours a day, many times in the fall, this is the farmer’s office,” said Jason Abbott, manager of value realization at the John Deere Harvester Works. “Think about it that way. You have to not only run your machine efficiently and productively, in many cases you have to run your business while you’re in the machine.”
     City drivers are so dazzled by their shiny new hybrid vehicles’ traffic-sign recognition and 360-degree bird’s-eye view they might not realize that the same artificial intelligence revolution has revolutionized farming and the way farm equipment is manufactured.
     ”The tech adoption in agriculture would absolutely shock people that aren’t in the loop,” said Miles Musick, factory engineering manager at the Harvester Works, about 170 miles west of Chicago in East Moline, Illinois.
     Spend a morning at the 3 million-square-foot Harvester Works, and you get a sense of how high-tech it’s all become. When a Deere factory opened in the city in 1912, it already was toward the end of the company’s first century. The company was started in Grand Detour, Illinois, in 1837 by John Deere, a Vermont blacksmith who turned an old saw blade into a self-scouring steel plow that did a better job of cutting through Illinois’ sticky black earth.

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  1. Wow, had no idea that farm equipment was that high tech.

  2. Hi Neil excellent column very well written and was wondering? Would you happen to know an average price for one of these beautiful machines?

    1. Yes, a new X9 combine costs just north of $1 million. That was the one frustrating part of the Sun-Times story — a lot of details, such as that, get lost.

  3. Fantastic article. I grew up in a farm town and have watched the evolution of farm practices with wonder. Every time I read an article like this it occurs to me - who makes the machines that makes the machines?

    1. One of those companies would be Calvary robotics in Rochester NY . My son interned there in college.

  4. These manufacturing expositions are indeed fun to read, for me quite possibly much more than half the fun they were to write, while the subjects by a different hand would likely be dull, boring and tedious. Well done, thank you, Neil.


  5. I, for one, am glad that I really, really enjoy visiting factories, Mr. S —I've learned so much about the many things that are made...and how things are Chicago and elsewhere in the surrounding region. I've learned more about manufacturing from EGD...and your Sun-Times stories...than I did in half-a-lifetime in my hometown. Today's processes are so much different than they were in the old places like Mars, Tootsietoy, and Schwinn...all of which I toured as a kid.

    Thanks for an eye-opening read about how agricultural computer technology eventually feeds us. And about how it now takes factory-trained mechanics to fix these giant and incredibly complex machines. Not like the International Harvester trucks and farm equipment that my ex-wife's father sold in the Eighties. It's like the difference between working on a new car and fixing a '67 Beetle with a wrench and a book.

  6. I clicked on the link within your column, Fortune favors the bold and in the comments section I noticed a comment from Tom, who was once a regular commenter people might remember that he often quoted from poetry and other historical documents

    I thought to myself. Wow. I haven't seen anything from Tom in a long time.
    Neil couldn't have banned him. He was never controversial but when I started to go backwards through the columns and tried to search out the last time he had commented it was in January.
    Obviously I don't know the man but it's troubling. I wonder if anybody knows what became of Tom. I believe from his comments that his last name was Evans. Are you out there? Tom?

  7. I love your factory tours and have been waiting for this one. Now I'm curious about what else was in the Crain's story. My guess is that it was about the financial aspects of this. These machines must cost more than a small fortune.

  8. Chris Gaesser's statements about right-to-repair seem to be a little disingenuous to say the least. No one is going to use pliers to remove a bolt, it will strip the head. By way of analogy, some here may do basic repairs on a car, or have a relative or neighbor that can help. You can use an OBD II code reader to find the problem when the check engine light goes on. Some problems are easy to fix like replacing an EGR valve, oxygen or MAP sensor. You can clear the codes, run the engine and re-scan to verify the repair worked. If a problem is out of your league, you can take it to a trusted repair shop. Less expensive than going to the dealer, unless it's still under warranty.
    What John Deere was doing in the past was restricting code readers from accessing their top end harvesters. It would lock down the equipment until a John Deere mechanic can read the error codes, fix problems, and then clear the code, allowing the tractor to work again. Now the most critical role a harvester plays in farming operations, is a few weeks window when the crops need to be brought in. If the John Deere dealer is backlogged, well a few weeks delay can be catastrophic. Some farmers prefer the older equipment because they can't tolerate an extended down time.
    Independently John Deere and the Farm Bureau reached an agreement earlier this year. A google search shows John Deere scanners and parts are now available for purchase. The lawsuit is still necessary to keep John Deere from trying variations of this scheme in the future, and a warning to John Deere competitors not to do this.


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