John Deere first burst into the riding lawn equipment market in 1963 with the Model 110. After nearly 60 years in the market, there are still unexpected new challenges to overcome such as the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain shortages and product launches that don’t go as well as hoped.
Wayne Southall, plant manager for John Deere, has been with the company for more than 20 years, beginning his career as a manufacturing engineer at the Horicon Works plant in Wisconsin. Since then, he has worked in supply management, material flow, quality, and operations in Greeneville, Tennessee, and Waterloo, Iowa. He is now back at Horicon, where he served as plant manager for the past two years, and is responsible for the safety, quality, delivery, efficiency and cost of production of ride-on lawn equipment, walking mowers, snow blowers and Gator UTVs.
As a mid-career hire at Deere, Southall’s company’s first mower was the John Deere STX, the standard lawn mower design before the LT, which was eventually replaced by the 300 series. currently the X394, which is a four-wheel-steer lawn tractor that he says is “almost a lazy lawn tractor, it does everything. There’s a PTO button, power steering, electric deck lift, I really like that one.
Development of lawn mowers
Southall says the new ride-on mower designs are all about convenience and connection points for the user compared to before when it was just “an engine with a blade that hung and cut the grass.” Some of the new features Southall has overseen include 12-volt accessory charging points and utility pockets for phones or tools. Some tractors now include a digital display that can track blade speed and cut quality. “If you’re in really dense grass, it prompts you to slow down if you want a good cut, but you can still plow it if you want,” says Southall.
When you’re in the industry and you’re able to refine your product for as long as Deere, you inevitably face some design constraints, which is one of the biggest challenges Deere has had to overcome in recent years. years. This includes blade speed. According to Southall, the faster the blade speed, the better the quality of the cut, but it can also create the risk of thrown objects.
“There are many regulatory and industry standards that most customers aren’t aware of,” says Southall. “Most customers don’t like it, but there are some things we have to do that we constantly get complaints about. …Regulations have their reasons, but it just traps you from an engineer design perspective to get the quality of cut you want without introducing other negatives for the customer.
Riding the Tweel
One of Deere’s most unique products is the Tweel, an airless radial turf tire designed for use with Ztrak and QuikTrak mowers introduced in 2014. Traditional lawn and garden tires, and in general, are filled with air, using a rubber bladder. .
“We developed the Tweel, which is a wheel that has a tread, but there is no tyre,” explains Southall. “It’s a plastic spoke pattern that makes up the tire, so it’s not even a flat tire – it’s a tire that never runs flat.”
The Tweel has been installed on many Deere zero-turn (ZTR) products and has found success, especially for commercial mowers where much of the downtime has been spent replacing flat tires.
The John Deere SpinSteer
Even through its many successes, John Deere doesn’t quite have the perfect track record. Southall points to the John Deere SpinSteer (SST), a ZTR mower with a flywheel. Typically, ZTR mowers were controlled by two levers, which is still the predominant way they are configured, but Deere has heard from customers that many of them are not comfortable with this control scheme. .
After designing the mower with the flywheel, Deere encountered a few issues during development and testing: it didn’t follow hills as well as some other competing equipment.
“So the engineering group was working on that, but we had made such a splash from a marketing standpoint of this brand new unit that was coming out, that people were stuck on that path and scared not to go forward and introduce it because we put billboards and advertisements everywhere,” Southall explains. “So we went ahead and went to the market with it.
In the meantime, the engineering group was working on the solution, which was ready halfway through its first season on the market, and planned to introduce it in the second season. Unfortunately for Deere, it was too late. It was such a negative for customers that once word got out, the SST never recovered, although according to Southall it was better than what the competition was offering.
“It’s had good results,” says Southall. “It was very uncomfortable at the time, but we learned some good lessons from it.”
He says one of those learnings was to never go to market if the product doesn’t at least meet, if not exceed, the customer’s expectations. Plus, some of the things they learned while working on the design were incorporated into the ZTR products that Deere still produces today.
Meet the mass market
In 2001, John Deere introduced its L100 line of lawn equipment to the mass market at Home Depot and Lowe’s. Initially, Deere had only one assembly line in Greenville because it didn’t know how it was going to be received in the market.
“The first year, we had more demand than we could produce on one assembly line, all year,” says Southall. “We quickly jumped into setting up the second assembly line, but in the meantime we also produced them at Horicon to complement this production.”
Today, 100% of L100s are produced from the Greenville plant, but both plants share common mower deck shells, so much of the product stamping is done at Horicon.
Like most industries, John Deere factories were disrupted around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it hit, no one knew what they needed to do to navigate it. The Southall factory closed for two weeks while they learned what protocols needed to be put in place – signage, policies, rules, protections and how to educate employees on social distancing. They met daily as staff members and walked through these issues together, creating documentation, policies, and procedures that are still in place today.
While the pandemic has subsided, Deere, among other manufacturers, still faces a tough spot with the global supply chain crisis. To counter this, Deere has tools in place that can look at the inventory and plant components it has internally, the demand for a product, and the orders it has. The factory has tools that can run production simulations of certain product lines to see what can be produced on order.
“If we are supposed to produce a certain amount of a lawn tractor today, but we have an engine delay, or we have another component that we are not going to get, we can remove it from the line. and build it into something that was supposed to be produced tomorrow, or the day after,” Southall says. “We can run the simulation to make sure we have those parts, and then define what we’re going to produce today.”
In the past, there would have been enough supply and inventory available to run everything on schedule. Every once in a while, a quality issue can disrupt production, Southall says, but otherwise everything went on schedule.
“We had to create a lot of flexibility and use or use the flexibility we already had in the factory because of the issues we are facing right now,” says Southall.