Machinery Chatter

Factory Tour Diaries, Part 2

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
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Engines built in France go into John Deere's 6 Series tractors, which are assembled in Mannheim, Germany. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

MANNHEIM, Germany (DTN) -- A factory tour junkie like me looks for several things in an assembly plant. He wants to see something unique in the production systems; he wants efficiency and he wants to be surprised. In the case of the John Deere tractor factory in Mannheim, I had both.

The factory, which today makes several models of the 6 Series tractor, got its start in 1859 as the home of the Heinrich Lanz Company, an agricultural implement maker, which launched the German renowned Bulldog tractor in 1921. It had only one cylinder but was wildly popular among German farmers buying their first tractor.

The factory, which is on 42 hectares of prime real estate in downtown Mannheim, survived World War II and became a Deere property in 1956. It is the largest Deere factory outside the U.S. Production varies according to demand, but Mannheim regularly produces $1.4 billion/year in sales, according to tour guide Michael Schlieper. That is about 41% of the entire German ag equipment industry. Shiploads of 6 Series tractors go up the Rhine to Rotterdam and end up all over the world. The U.S., Canada and Australia receive 34% of them. About 32% go to the EU and a sizable number go to the Ukraine and Russia.

Enough numbers.

This factory tour junkie admires the basic concept of the Mannheim plant. It has only one assembly line, not parallel lines like so many other factories. On Mannheim's one line, numerous versions of the 6 Series tractors are mixed and matched as they snake their way from beginning to end. As each forming tractor arrives at a workstation (a stay that lasts only 3.2 minutes), workers scan attached documents, and a computer determines which parts to install for that particular model. This means workers don't have time to become bored with repetitive tasks.

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They wheel carts to a parts storage area where the computer has turned on a light over each appropriate bin. This "pick by light" system ensures that the worker picks only the right parts.

Robots help make sure the bolts are tightened to exactly the right torque.

In a gear prep area, a human worker pushes a cart with several shelves into a "soft" robot. On the shelves are rough gears, which the robot picks individually to clean and polish away imperfections. When the gears are ready, the robot signals the human worker, who moves them to the next station. The Mannheim plant has 12 such robots, which annually prep about 340,000 gears. Four Germans help.

Besides the soft robots, Mannheim has the usual assortment of factory robots: welders, metal benders and transporters. It also has 2,800 human employees, including line workers and administrators. The workers have a strong union, which negotiates high wages and good working conditions. The plant has a 92% retention rate, Schlieper said, and hundreds of applicants whenever there is an opening.

For efficiency, Mannheim has a several "golly gee" features. The two that I like best are its wastewater treatment, which includes a stopover in a vegetated area where plants clean the water before it goes into the sewer system. My favorite might be the metal shavings recycling process. Bits of metal that are waste to John Deere land in bins that are shipped to Mercedes Benz where they are melted, reformed and become part of luxury cars.

For surprises, I'll return to the human employees. The various teams are autonomous; they have no leader, but instead make group decisions about things like vacation and work rotations. Teams are also in competition with other teams and efficiency scores determine which team gets to pipe music into its work area for the week. Euro bonuses also apply.

To uphold German standards of tidiness, the factory has set up a series of what I will call "shaming boxes." There are clean Plexiglas containers positioned at rest areas. When workers find debris or trash carelessly left on the floor, they drop it into the box where everyone can see that one of their coworkers was careless or lazy. A two-month accumulation at one location: less than a bushel.

Maybe that small amount shouldn't be a surprise. After all, this is Germany.

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

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