Machinery Chatter

Factory Tour Diaries, Part 1

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
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About 25,000 visitors annually stop at John Deere's tractor factory in Mannheim, Germany. The plant makes several versions of the 6 Series tractors, some of which are exported to North America. The 9RX in the background is for display only and came from the U.S. factory in Waterloo, Iowa. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

MANNHEIM, Germany (DTN) -- I met Saskatchewan farmers Fred Butuk and Eduard Bomers last Friday at the entry to the John Deere tractor factory in Mannheim, Germany. We were there for a factory tour: I with a group of North American journalists, they on their way to Agritechnica, the largest farm show in the world, which starts Nov. 13 in Hannover, Germany. (I will be there myself for three days.)

Fred described himself as a "factory tour junkie." He and Eduard had already been to a Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany and next would travel south to Bavaria for a tour of the Fendt factory in Marktoberdorf. In 2009, Fred drove from Saskatchewan to Fargo, North Dakota; Jackson, Minnesota; Waterloo, Iowa; and Moline, Illinois, to take factory tours.

"I just like factories," he told me.

Fred and I are kindred spirits. Factories fascinate me with the endless variety of ingenious ways and tools that humans invent to make new things. While most modern factories have some common technologies -- assembly lines with various stations, robots and computer monitors -- each has its own surprising strategies for creating new useful things from a chaos of parts. Efficiency, speed and attention to detail are key. This is one reason I'm always confused when people attack modern agriculture as "factory farming," as if efficiency, speed and attention to detail are somehow negatives.

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But that's a discussion for another day.

Fred, Eduard, the media group and I hit the factory tour jackpot on this day. Besides the Mannheim plant, we also would travel a few kilometers to Bruchsal where Deere has a tractor and combine cab factory. Adjacent to that is Deere's European Parts Distribution Center, a state-of-the-art storage and shipping facility with 10.5 hectares (almost 26 acres) under roof.

By the end of the day, we had a German-style cafeteria lunch, numerous cups of coffee and multiple restroom stops. According to someone's Fitbit, we walked 12,000 steps, which I think is about 7 miles. All in all, it was a factory tour junkie's dream day.

I'll tell you more about it throughout the week, interspersed with reports from Agritechnica. But to whet your appetite, I'll tell you that near the end of the Mannheim tour, Fred cried out, "There's a black tractor!" Sure enough, mixed among the finished 6 Series tractors were a few shiny black ones.

Turns out buyers who order multiple tractors can ask John Deere for a switch from its patented green and yellow color scheme. The factory won't necessarily grant the requests, according to tour guide Michael Schlieper. For instance, Deere won't go for outlandish colors or "freaky green." Nor, the guide said with a grin, would it likely paint a John Deere tractor red.

But the factory did hand-paint those black tractors for a customer with an order of 20. It also has produced a fleet of pink tractors for Euro Disney and some white tractors for the Queen of England.

See, factories are full of surprises.

Jim Patrico can be reached at jim.patrico@dtn.com

(AG)

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