High Horsepower in the Heartland
Why a small community in Minnesota earned the right to bring the assembly of high-horsepower tractors back to North America.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
Early in 2012, assembly of Massey Ferguson® high-horsepower row-crop tractors returned to North America. The AGCO Corporation facility in Jackson, Minn.—or more to the point, the workforce there—has earned a reputation for quality workmanship and innovation since this community began making ag equipment in the mid-1960s.
Now, those Jackson employees, who operate one of AGCO’s most successful manufacturing facilities, apply that same work ethic and experience to Massey Ferguson’s 8600 and 7600 Series tractors, as well Challenger’s MT600 Series tractors. What’s their secret? How is it that this small farming community has managed to consistently produce such superior equipment for a half-century?
To find out we spoke with several employees—managers, welders, engineers, folks who work the line. What we discovered was a drive fueled by a pride in their creations, employees eager to learn and try new approaches, and—perhaps above all—a connection to agriculture. In fact, many of the Jackson staff come from farm families or are farmers themselves; they apply lessons they’ve learned working the land to the equipment they help design and produce.
These men and women told us they consider it paramount to build the highest quality equipment, allowing the North American farmer to become all the more efficient and productive. They make equipment that helps producers make a living and make it home in time for the dinner.
Farmers Work Here
John and Andy Peterson lead two lives. They work at AGCO’s Jackson plant, where Andy is a maintenance group leader, tending to many of the plant’s high-tech machines, while brother John is the director of engineering for global electronics.
But those are their day jobs.
When they’re not at the plant, you’ll probably find them farming about 700 acres just north of town. They’re the fifth generation to do so—now growing corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and even sunflowers some years—and the second to work both jobs. Like their father, Sylvan, who worked as a machinist at the plant until he retired about three years ago, they take lessons learned on the farm back to the plant.
“When we turn off the lights,” says John Peterson, “and put our jackets on at the end of the day, we’re going home to get into a piece of equipment or turn on a piece of electronics, like auto steering or a yield monitor. The lessons we learn in that environment, you can’t help but bring them back to work and incorporate them into the product. An understanding to that level, the dirt under your fingernails, I think gains a respect when dealing with customers or dealing with co-workers in the plant. It allows us to make a better piece of equipment.”
Excellence on the Line
Such hard-won knowledge and the desire to constantly improve equipment and how it’s made have been hallmarks of the Jackson plant, which has long been the site of assembly for TerraGator and RoGator applicators, SpraCoupe row-crop sprayers, and Challenger tractors. The market for each of those vehicles is extremely competitive, yet the plant’s management and its employees have managed to best their brand rivals with improved performance—by their own measures on the factory floor, and in how well the equipment they makes works in the field.
Now, says Dave Dehrkoop, who oversees tooling and technology for the plant, that tenaciousness has been rewarded with the addition of the Massey Ferguson tractors. That means more jobs for workers in the area, as well as tractors made by one of the most proven manufacturing facilities in North America.
“We’ve been extremely innovative here,” says Dehrkoop, a self-described “farm kid” from Waterloo, Iowa. In addition to adopting a streamlined manufacturing process and allowing self-directed work teams to develop their own innovative ideas, Dehrkoop points to the use of new robotic technology for machining and welding, as well as using a leading-edge, virtual reality simulator as part of its training for human welders. AGCO is one of the first welding facilities to adopt the simulator, and the Jackson plant has already seen significant savings of time, money and materials with its use—cost savings that can be passed on to the customer.
The simulator has also allowed managers and engineers to experience welding, allowing a deeper understanding of the process and how it can be improved. VIDEO: See the simulator in action. >>
As a result of the plant’s focus on improvement, Dehrkoop says, “We’ve had the opportunity to bring work back to North America and bring that work back to this plant almost every year I’ve been here. And that’s saying something right there.”
John Peterson notes a few more examples of design improvements added at the facility and/or by the Jackson team: “We’ve put in a very rigorous in-field testing program, in which the software elements that go onto these tractors [undergo] a test process that runs them through thousands of cycles before we even put that software on the first prototype. We’ve also ‘commonized’ many of our components.”
He notes the latter concept applies to things as seemingly simple as wires on different equipment being routed the same way, to the decision to use the reliable and robust AGCO Power engines across a range of Massey Ferguson tractors—from smaller 60 horsepower models all the way up to those wielding 370 horsepower. The benefit, says Peterson, a former navigation supervisor on U.S. Navy submarines, is that it allows for crosstraining and increased use of commonly available parts—both of which make the equipment and service faster and less expensive.
In the Shop, On the Farm
Back on the shop floor, welder Lynnette Anderson says there’s no shortage of ideas on how to make improvements. “I ask questions all the time,” she says, and notes there are plenty of opportunities to explore ideas, including her own team meetings and with managers who regularly walk the floor.
But for Anderson, who was raised on a farm in Southern Minnesota and now has a few acres of her own 25 miles from the plant, she is driven by a sense of responsibility to the person operating the machinery she’s had a hand in making. “It’s pride,” she says, “but it’s also a concern that I want to do the best that I can.”
In some ways, quality is an abstract word, Anderson adds. Time, she says, is more tangible. “One of the things that upsets me most is when something breaks and I lose time trying to fix it. My time is precious, and I know a farmer feels that same way. I also know that even the smallest welds are important to the quality of that machine I’m building, so I’m looking at my welds and I’m checking my work constantly.”
John Peterson agrees. “Our first focus is on uptime,” he says. “The people who are buying this equipment are buying it for the reputation of keeping them in the field. For them, it’s a business. Either you make money or you leave.
“And to do that,” he continues, “you’ve got to have machinery that there’s no question in your mind. When you go out to start it, it starts. When you put it in gear, it moves. The reliability and the durability of everything from the engine to the monitors have just got to be there. It’s an expectation at the plant and on our own farm.”