AGCO and Glass: The Future Is Clear

AGCO teams with Google and other high-tech partners to develop a new tool that, in the blink of an eye, is helping to revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.

By Jenna Schnuer

By 2013, the clatter and crash of tablet computers tumbling to the floor of AGCO’s Jackson, Minnesota, plant had become, to put it mildly, an issue. “There’s not really much of a flat surface on a tractor,” says Anthony Buckentin, a manufacturing lead at the AGCO® facility. “One little bump and it’s on the floor.”

Such accidents proved as expensive as they were disruptive. Smash a tablet from a drop of 4 feet or less and the warranty covers the damage. The tractors rolling out of the Jackson plant stand quite a bit taller, and it wasn’t unusual—perhaps twice a month—for the tablets to fall from a height of 10 feet or so, break and cost AGCO a hefty $3,000 to replace.

The tricky bit: The tablets were supposed to be the solution. For instance, personnel handling quality checks on finished equipment previously had to complete a check sheet, climb down from the tractor and walk across to a wall-mounted computer, inputting the information they had just scribbled down by hand.

Not so efficient.

Peggy Gulick, AGCO Jackson’s director of business process improvement, gathered staffers from the IT and tractor final factory inspection/quality teams to brainstorm a new and efficient way forward. “It’s important to understand the culture here; we’re a problem-solving culture,” Gulick says.

The group came up with several ideas. Going back to the check sheets and wall computers would zap any productivity gains the company made with the tablets; that was out. Finding a way to attach the tablet computers to the employees made for a good chuckle and some duct tape jokes, but … no. They needed a wearable computer.

That’s when Brandon Ross Sr., a systems analyst with the Jackson IT team, mentioned that his department had been offered to bid on a pair of the latest iteration of Google Glass (known officially as Google Explorer Glass). Launched as a consumer tool, Google Glass was the Internet-at-your-eyeballs innovation that put a tiny (but powerful) computer right on the user’s face. The product that had itself launched a thousand jokes about geeky tech types and news stories about privacy issues was being rethought as a solution for a highly complex, high-tech manufacturing operation, such as AGCO’s Jackson facility.

It took nearly seven months to get that first pair of Glass on the factory floor, in part because the original product was not made for manufacturing. Yet, with input from AGCO, Google, Proceedix—a Belgian application development organization—and others, a new vision and strategy for the product began to take shape and came to be known as Glass Enterprise Edition.

Innovation Equals Productivity

Glass Enterprise Edition is in many ways similar to the original Explorer. For instance, the right-hand bar of each pair of glasses contains the actual computer and can therefore attach to prescription eyewear, if an employee requires them, and in all instances when they are used on the factory floor, a pair of safety glasses. (AGCO worked with 3M to provide the latter.)

When an employee directs his or her vision to the task at hand, it’s business as usual. As an employee looks toward the top of the right lens, however, whatever information he or she needs is visible. For commands, such as scrolling or turning the page, the Glass technology reacts both to finger taps and voice.

To make Glass all the more applicable to AGCO’s needs, Proceedix developed an application that supports digitized standard work instructions, specifically for use with the eyewear technology, and also compliant with tablets, computers and phones. The instructions can be personalized for both new hires and those experienced workers who can bypass more basic instructions.

“Fortunately and unfortunately for us, [the technology] was so new that nobody had a solution to support our vision of work instructions delivered to operators in Glass. So, we were making it up as we went,” says Gulick. “That’s the exciting part. I had leadership here that allowed us to take the risk and realize the value.”

Expected and Unexpected Benefits

While there is a learning curve associated with the use of Glass, the technology has proved invaluable throughout all aspects of the manufacturing process, especially considering the low volume and high complexity of the products that AGCO’s Jackson operation manufactures.

“Every unit that goes down our line is different—every one of them,” says Gulick, of the Massey Ferguson® and Challenger® tractors, and Challenger RoGator® and TerraGator® application equipment produced at the plant. “They’re configured by customers and dealers.

“Our employees are trained to use the tools and understand the work instructions in our Assembly Academy. When they get to the floor, there are some units that we may only make six of a year.  The Glass, running Proceedix, allows the operators to access the complex configuration instructions, easily guaranteeing quality and productivity with every unit going down the line.”

In the quality department, “we know when it’s going out the door now, that every checkpoint has been visited,” Gulick explains. “If there were an issue, there’s actually workflow sent from the Glass to the quality gate to come over and review those problems and close out those issues, and to make sure those are not repeated again through the line.”

She adds: “Our quality issues went down. Our safety issues went down, because employees weren’t having to walk to and from computers to get information. And our processing time went down because the information was right there. And, there was no rework because it was done right the first time.”

The results? “Phenomenal,” says Gulick. Process times, in both quality checks and assembly, were reduced by 30%. There was also a 50% improvement in training time for employees, whether new or switching jobs within the plant.

“The results were so positive that it was just insane. It would surprise us; we would go back and retest it thinking that can’t be right.” Yet, Gulick says, it was indeed correct.

The benefits of Glass trickle down to AGCO customers as well. “It’s definitely making the quality of the product that we’re building better because of the accessibility to information [at the assembly and quality-check stages],” Buckentin says.

“AGCO takes pride in delivering both product and service quality to our customers,” explains Gulick. “Our initiative to use Glass and Proceedix has significantly advanced our continuous improvement efforts, positively impacting quality, safety and productivity. “

Big Plans for Glass

The future of Glass at AGCO is, pun intended, quite clear. Even with prescription safety glass, no pair of Glass costs more than $1,500. The Jackson plant currently has 130 pairs of Glass, which covers manufacturing, assembly and quality. And, three years in, there hasn’t been a single smashed pair.

Within the next 18 months, the company plans to add 500 to 1,000 pairs in more U.S. facilities, as well as in Germany, Brazil and Italy. And AGCO Jackson continues to partner with Google in developing—and evangelizing—the benefits of putting Glass to work on factory floors. AGCO runs monthly tours at the plant to showcase how the technology works in a real-life setting. The tours are currently filled up by representatives of manufacturing companies trying to see the solution firsthand.

Gulick sees Glass as a huge success and part of the continuum of innovation at AGCO. “We’re not afraid to take a different direction. It really makes our employees smarter, faster, more productive in what they’re doing,” she says. “And they’re not surprised by it, because that’s the way we live.”