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The quality revolution in agricultural machinery

Business has changed. You can’t build a tractor the way they used to. Farmers won’t let you

Today, manufacturers welcome customers and visitors to their assembly plants to see first hand how companies focus on build quality.

At first, we all thought he must have been exaggerating. It was 2013 and we were at the Hesston, Kansas combine assembly plant where Hans-Bernd Veltmaat, AGCO’s senior vice-president was discussing the plant’s US$40-million expansion, which included a new state-of-the-art paint system.

“This paint centre is a major building block for AGCO,” Veltmaat said. “With this paint centre we are in the same league as Daimler, BMW, Lexus and so on.”

No one actually winked or gave us a nudge in the ribs with their elbow, but in case you missed it, those car brands are luxury brands, associated with some of the highest build quality in the world.

Really? Our next Gleaner and Massey Ferguson combine is going to have that kind of quality?

It turns out, though, that Veltmaat’s claim wasn’t exactly off the cuff. Far from it, in fact, because the whole point of inviting the media and customers through those factory doors was to see their efforts to hit a new high in manufacturing.

The Hesston plant had also just implemented a new testing regimen, requiring all combines to pass a 100-point inspection and a simulated harvesting test in a dyno room before moving out the door. “There is no combine leaving this factory which has not passed this test,” Veltmaat promised.

“We have to become (at AGCO) a culture of total quality,” agreed Robert Crain, senior vice-president and general manager for North America, speaking at the same event. “That’s our next great stride as a company. That’s the reason we made this investment.”

The core message put out that day was, we build quality. That message has been repeated at many other factories owned by many other brands that I have visited over the years, where executives want to emphasize their company’s dedication to the industry’s current, almost universal, focus on quality.

Of course, that isn’t to say there aren’t farmers who have had warranty problems with a piece of equipment lately. Nor is it to deny that the frantic work pace on factory assembly lines over the past five years has somewhat negatively affected build quality as companies have struggled to keep up with customer orders.

But contrast those statements made in Hesston with the situation back in the 1970s and 1980s at the Brantford, Ontario factory that built Massey Ferguson combines when the company was under very different ownership. It makes the evolution in attitude very obvious.

Workers at Massey Ferguson’s Brantford, Ont., combine plant in the early 1980s install cabs on the assembly line.
Workers at Massey Ferguson’s Brantford, Ont., combine plant in the early 1980s install cabs on the assembly line. photo: Sourced by Ray Bianchi/Dave Nicolle collection

Dave Nicolle, the former head of quality assurance at the Brantford plant in the 1980s spoke to Country Guide about how quality was perceived in those days.

“I was the quality guy in the plant, and it was very, very hard sometimes to get through to the upper management and even the union guys that we have to make a perfect combine,” Nicolle recalls. “We didn’t always have that culture in the combine plant.”

The repercussions sometimes caused problems for dealers and customers. “Sometimes we would ship a new machine to a customer and he was absolutely irate with it for whatever reason,” Nicolle says. “Even though the dealer had done everything he could to get the machine back up and running again, the customer was so irate he said, ‘I want to speak to someone from the factory.’ So, I would fly to wherever it was in North America. I would show up with the dealer. The customer would run up one side of me and down the other, letting me know whatever was wrong.

“I’d take notes and take pictures… and pacify him anyway I possibly could. Then I’d come back to the factory and have a debrief with the guys. But it was so difficult, because the management that was responsible for not letting things like this happen really didn’t care. I’d given my word to the customer that I’d make sure this wouldn’t happen again, but in my heart I knew that would be very difficult. Unless it was something concrete, like you could change a piece of equipment, it was very hard to get a mindset change in the factory.”

A few weeks before Massey Combines Corp. fell into bankruptcy in 1988, Nicolle left to take a similar job at Toyota’s Cambridge, Ont. car assembly plant. And he found the attitude toward quality was much different there.

“I often reflected back, if Massey had run its business the way Toyota ran its, we’d still have been in business (in Brantford) today,” Nicolle says. “By that I mean they worked as a team, from the president to the guy on the floor putting the car together. Everyone was focused on quality. The top guys were 100 per cent committed to quality, and also to cost reduction, productivity and looking after people, all those things. But quality was the driving force.”

At Toyota, the strategy was based around team work. “So if there was a problem, it wasn’t just your problem, it was ‘our’ problem,” Nicolle says. “It wasn’t like that at Massey. It (Massey) was a traditional North American-type company.”

Today, however, virtually every ag equipment-manufacturing plant has moved away from what was arguably the typical North American attitude toward manufacturing, which didn’t focus strongly on quality through the 1970s and 1980s. And manufacturers did learn from those Japanese automakers, at least in part. Consequently, customer expectations have grown significantly. Now, there is little tolerance among customers for poor workmanship in either cars or farm machinery.

“They (farmers) actually had an expectation that the machine was going to have quality issues when it was delivered to them. And they lived with it,” said Peter Clarke, president and CEO of Seed Hawk, a Saskatchewan seeding equipment manufacturer, during an open house event at that company’s factory in October.

That is far from the case today, however.

Peter Clarke
Peter Clarke photo: Supplied

“We’re trying to keep pace with the expectation of the farmer,” Clarke says. “You can’t do that unless you change the way you produce products. It can’t be done the way it was before.”

It’s why the look of assembly lines in so many ag equipment factories has changed over the past couple of decades. Quality control (QC) points have been inserted into the lines and it’s more remarkable now not to see them on a factory floor.

“For us it’s about organizing ourselves in the way an automotive company would manufacture a car, as it’s delivered from a quality perspective today,” says Clarke. “So you have inspection points on incoming components, you have inspection points on delivery of those products to the floor, you have all sorts of QC points on the floor in the production process to catch the things you don’t want your farmer to catch.”

And the staff on the factory floors have changed too.

“It’s changed the jobs,” Clarke adds. “You just had a bunch of assembly people waiting for parts and assembling them. Now you have a bunch of quality control people on the line who are inspecting, training and doing a lot more things.”

That has added costs within the plant, but it may not have added overall costs to a manufacturer.

“You add costs here, but take costs out over there,” explains Clarke. “If you deliver product that’s substandard, you pay for it in the end anyway with warranty and service components in the field. I don’t think it’s added cost at all if you look at the total picture.”

In fact, that total picture has changed in several ways, going beyond just quality concerns to satisfying the customer in a whole new variety of ways. One of those changes, i.e. hearing from customers directly, has now become the norm in the industry.

“Our business model has always been that the dealer is the interface with the grower,” says Clarke. “The grower doesn’t want that (anymore). They’re spending a lot of money and they want to have a way in to talk to the manufacturer directly. They’re finding a way through to us anyway. And we have to open the lines of communication and allow them to get to us.

“We have focus growers (groups) that talk to us about the improvements they’d like to see. And they know they’re talking to us on behalf of the entire population. We can’t put up barriers to that communication. It just won’t work anymore.”

As we spoke in Clarke’s office, downstairs plant staff were guiding invited guests through the factory on a series of tours and answering questions about the manufacturing process. It was all part of that effort to keep the communication with its customers open and demonstrating commitment to quality on the factory floor, something most manufacturers of all sizes now willingly do.

“Open the doors,” says Clarke. “Let them come in and see what’s going on.”

About the author


Scott Garvey

Scott Garvey is a freelance writer and video producer. He is also the former machinery editor for Country Guide.

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