FEATURE PHOTOS: Every Iowan should get a chance to see a John Deere tractor being made


WATERLOO, Iowa, March 17, 2014 — For my farm neighbor and pal Doug Lawton, it was certainly a career highlight.  But heck, for any Iowan, watching a John Deere tractor being made at what’s always been known as Deere’s “Waterloo Works” factory should be a thrill.  It sure was for me one day last week.  What a way to start a new crop season!

Lawtons have farmed around our west central Iowa town of Cooper for five or six generations and well over 100 years.  But Doug, 59, thinks this is the first time any of them have ever ordered a tractor to be built for them.  “We generally bought used, or if we did buy new, it was from whatever was available on the implement dealer’s lot,” he said.  The Deere 7800 he’s been using for years is a 1993 model.  It was already used when his father-in-law Dick Wilcox purchased it, and eventually Doug bought it from Dick. 

The time was right for a new tractor, a decision good farmers of today make only after a lot of consulting, test driving and study.  When input costs are so high — for land, seed, fertilizer, equipment, fuel, repairs — farmers have got to be as efficient as possible.  For someone who farms 1,600 acres, as Lawton does, that now pretty well means new equipment with the latest technology. 

Salesman Jay Adamson, of Van Wall Equipment in Perry, who has sold the Lawtons a lot of machinery, helped Doug settle on an 8235R tractor and a new 16-row planter.  The equipment will be fully-loaded with Deere’s computer-driven Auto Trac system, which will enable the tractor to steer itself for precision fieldwork and planting.  Lawton estimates that “probably about half” of Greene County’s total acres will be farmed with similar technology this year.  I didn’t ask how much the new equipment is costing, but I know it’ll be worth a whole lot more than the three acres, farmhouse, tattered barn, garage, shed, two cars and three bicycles that we Offenburgers have! 

It also meant Lawton qualified as a “Gold Key” Deere customer, and with that came the opportunity to take a couple family members or friends to Waterloo to watch the tractor being made, with a knowledgeable Deere tour guide being assigned to their small group.  Doug, his son-in-law Justin Towers, 31, and I made a day of it on Wednesday, March 12. 

The “John Deere Waterloo Operations” — the formal name of the “Waterloo Works” — includes six facilities that have 7.2 million square feet of floor space for manufacturing in buildings that occupy 2,734 acres in Waterloo and Cedar Falls.  There are 6,500 employees working for the company in those two cities, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a friendlier workforce anywhere — but keep in mind I was in the company of a pretty large-scale Iowa farmer.  The Doug Lawtons of our state are justifiably treated like rock stars when they walk into those Deere facilities.  We spent the biggest part of our day in the “Tractor Cab Assembly Operatons” plant, but we also took a two-hour tour of the “Engine Works.”  We did not get to see the “Foundry,” the “Product Engineering Center,” the “Drivetrain Operations,” or the “Service Parts Operations.”

We had an outstanding tour guide in Gary Vick, who is now retired after a 30-plus-year career with Deere in Waterloo, in which he worked mainly as a machinist in the Engine Works, although he had other assignments, too.  His father worked at Deere before him, and his son and daughter-in-law work there now. I swear he knew everybody in the Tractor Cab Assembly plant, and they were all giving him a shout when he drove us around the 47-acre production floor, and stopped for conversations at several points of the assembly line. “If you’ve got any questions, you ask these people on the line and they’ll be happy to explain why we do things the way we do,” Vick told Lawton.  “And if you’ve got any suggestions, you tell them, too.  That’s how our products get changed and improved around here — because of things that people like you tell us.” 

It was “a pretty awesome tour,” Towers said afterward.  Lawton said he “was amazed we got as close to the actual production as we did. I thought we might be walking up above it on a catwalk, looking down on it, but we were right there where we could talk to the workers.”  The two of them also were invited to go out to the testing area behind the plant and drive any tractor that was available that day.  Both opted for an 8000-series “tracked” tractor, one of those that comes with the rubber-belted tracks (think Army tanks or bulldozers) instead of wheels with tires.  Plus, Lawton got to drive a completed 8235 tractor, just like the one he was buying, off the assembly line.  Our tour guide Vick offered to let me drive any tractor I wanted to, too, but I told him that driving my John Deere lawn tractor stretches my qualifications, so I declined. 

The day was a thrill, as I said earlier.  My gee-whizzer was stuck wide open, watching not only the incredibly talented and professional Deere workers, but also the dozen or so industrial robots we saw whirring, lifting, dipping, bolting, painting and other repetitive tasks that would 1) wear out a human workers and 2) probably be dangerous.  I don’t know whether I was more impressed by the technology Deere is building into its farm machinery or the technology they’re using to operate their plants. 

But the neatest thing that happened all day was something that came to Lawton.  Production worker Shawn Downs had just talked us through the hydraulics testing he was doing on the new Lawton tractor on the assembly line.  When he got done and we were moving on, he walked over, shook hands with the farmer and said, “Thanks for buying Green.” 

You can learn more about our experience in the 15 photos below here. 

Doug Lawton Justin Towers Gary Vick.JPG

Here were (from left) Doug Lawton, his son-in-law Justin Towers and our John Deere tour guide Gary Vick as we started out to follow the new Lawton tractor being built at Deere’s Tractor Cab Assembly Operators in northeast Waterloo.

Tractor Chasis Being Built.JPG

The rear end of the chassis moving through the assembly line.

Lawton Tractor Moving on frog thru assy line.JPG

Here is the Lawton tractor being pulled through the assembly line aboard a computer-driven, un-manned “frog” that is guided by magnets in the factory floor.

Lawton Tractor Engine & Tranny Added.JPG

This is a closer view of the tractor’s chassis after the massive engine and transmission have been added.

Shawn Downs Spin Test Thanks for buying Green.JPG

This Deere assembly line worker is shown explaining the testing that was being done on the hydraulics system on the new Lawton tractor.

Control Board For Automated Paint Booth.JPG

Here is an emergency control board right outside the paint booth, which is operated with full automation by a computer system elsewhere in the plant.

Robots Painting Tractor Chasis.JPG

Industrial robots are shown spray painting the chassis of a tractor.  “Touch-ups” are done at the next pause on the assembly line, by human workers wearing protective suits with breathing equipment to protect them from the paint and fumes.

Just After Decals Added.JPG

Here a worker has just applied the colorful decals to the hood for a tractor.

Unmanned frog moves tractor along assembly.JPG

Here a tractor is moving on one of those un-manned, computer-driven “frogs” to the next stop on the assembly line.

Doug Lawton In Cab Just Assembled.JPG

Here is Doug Lawton in the cab of a new tractor, more than a little amazed at how roomy it is.

Doug Driving Tractor Off Assy Line.JPG

Here, Doug Lawton drives a tractor much like the new one he bought, off the assembly line and into an area where more quality checks are done.

Doug Lawton Justin Towers End Of Assy Line.JPG

Doug Lawton and Justin Towers after the assembly.

Where Tractors Leave Factory.JPG

Sign at the big doors where tractors leave the assembly plant for outdoor testing and then the wait for pick-up by the implement dealer or customer.

Early Version Smart Machine Display in Factory.JPG

This fun display in one corner of the assembly plant shows an early version of Deere’s “Smart Machines” of today!

Doug Lawton Gary Vick Certif Signed by Tractor Building Team.JPG

Here Deere’s Gary Vick presents Doug Lawton with a certificate signed by the assembly line workers who put the Lawton tractor together.

Carla O with finished John Deere puzzle.JPG

Before we left the Tractor Cab Assembly Operations plant, we made a stop in the Deere gift shop.  We all bought ball caps and other fun reminders of our experience, and Chuck Offenburger picked up a 1,000-piece puzzle for his wife Carla Offenburger, who is a real fan of puzzles.  “It’s a hard one,” Carla said, as she was completing it several days later. “I’m pretty sure it took me longer to put this puzzle together than it did for the Deere workers to build Doug’s tractor!”

You can write the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment on the story and photos by using the handy form below here.



6 thoughts on “FEATURE PHOTOS: Every Iowan should get a chance to see a John Deere tractor being made

  1. Thanks for giving me a guided tour through your article. Since I was unable to go to Waterloo, this was a great way for me to see what your day was like. Amazing!

    Karen Lawton, Cooper IA

  2. I have the best job in the world. I get to meet great people like Doug, Justin and also Chuck. I get to show the QUALITY and Compassion of all the employees at John Deere Waterloo. Also I get to welcome farmers like Doug and Justin to be part of the John Deere family. Thanks again, Doug.

    Gary Vick, Waterloo IA

  3. Don’t know if you were made aware of it before or during you “Gold Key Tractor Tour,” but many of the lifts, hoists, and the tire machine that puts the tires on John Deere tractors were manufactured here in Laurens, at Positech, which is a division of American Handling, a small Iowa corporation. Positech and John Deere’s partnership has been a very good one for both companies for close to 30 years now. My husband Bob Braesch was the manager of the Integrated Solutions area at Positech before he passed away at the age of 56 from complications of lung cancer in 2010. He was also the outside contractor that put together the production line for the 8000 series tractor that you observed being manufactured. The tire handler that John Deere and several other companies use was also concepted by Bob and manufactured at Positech. Pretty much every work cell you saw at Waterloo had a machine in it from Positech during its lifetime. (Before being purchased by a group of employees under the American Handling banner In 2004, we were owned for a time by Columbus McKinnon based in Amhurst, New York. Hence we have several colors of equipment around the U.S.) One of the big pluses for John Deere is their encouragement and support of other smaller Iowa corporations and we that have been involved with them are very grateful for that. Thanks so much for the pics and a great article. Really enjoyed it!

    Becky Braesch, Laurens, IA

    • Hi, Becky. Thanks so much for your comment here. All during our tour at John Deere in Waterloo, I kept seeing “Positech” plaques on the factory equipment and thinking to myself, “I know something about that company, but what is it?” I never did ask our tour guide about it, but I wondered the same question when I was going through my photos, and saw the “Positech” signs again. After your reminder, I recall now reading about the Positech story in Laurens. You’re right about Deere’s encouragement and support of smaller Iowa companies. We’ve seen that happen in Greene County, where Deere was buying the huge planters made by Bauer Built in the town of Paton. In fact, that led to Deere buying the company recently, and now the Bauers are starting a new related but not competing business, also there in Paton. When you get a chance, drive through Paton and look at the transformation that the Bauers have helped lead in their hometown. — Chuck Offenburger

  4. Haven’t toured the John Deere Waterloo Works, but I did tour Ankeny Works on the cotton picker line. Having heard my grandfather talk about hand picking cotton in Oklahoma, maybe there was a reason he moved to Iowa in the 1940s and started using green corn planters and pickers. Love my green zero-turn-radius lawn mower and utility tractor.

    Mark Wampler, Slater, IA

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