John Deere first broke into the riding lawn equipment market in 1963 with the Model 110. After nearly 60 years in the market, there are still new, unexpected challenges to overcome like the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain shortages, and product releases that don’t go quite as smoothly as hoped.
Wayne Southall, a factory manager for John Deere, has worked at the company for over 20 years, starting his career as a manufacturing engineer at the Horicon Works factory in Wisconsin. Since then he’s worked in supply management, material flow, quality, and operations in Greeneville, Tennessee, and Waterloo, Iowa. Now he’s returned to Horicon, where he’s been the factory manager for the last two years, and is responsible for the safety, quality, delivery, efficiency, and cost in the production of riding lawn equipment, walking mowers, snowblowers, and Gator UTVs.
As a mid-career hire with Deere, Southall’s first company mower was the John Deere STX, the standard lawnmower design prior to the LT, which was eventually replaced by the 300 Series. He currently has the X394, which is a four wheel-steer lawn tractor he says is “almost a lazy man’s lawn tractor, it does everything. It’s got a PTO button, power steering, power deck lift, I really like that one.”
Southall says newer models of riding mowers are focused on conveniences and connection points for the user compared to before when it was just “an engine with a blade that slung and cut 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 the blade speed and quality of cut. “If you’re in really heavy grass, it prompts you to slow down if you want a good cut, but you can still plow through it if you want to,” says Southall.
When you’re in the industry and able to fine-tune your product as long as Deere has been, you’re bound to run into some design constraints, which is one of the biggest challenges Deere has needed to overcome in recent years. This includes blade speed. Southall says, the faster the blade speed, the better the quality of the cut, but that can also create some thrown object hazards.
“There are a lot of 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’re required to do that we get complaints about all the time. … The regulations have reasons, but it just kind of traps you from an engineer design standpoint to get the quality of cut that you want without introducing other negatives to the customer.”
Riding on the Tweel
One of Deere’s more unique looking products is the Tweel, a turf airless radial tire made for use with the Ztrak and QuikTrak mowers introduced in 2014. Traditional tires for lawn and garden, and in general, are filled up with air, using a rubber bladder.
“We developed the Tweel, which is a wheel that has a tread, but there are no pneumatics,” says Southall. “It’s a plastic spoke pattern that makes up the tire, so it’s not even a run-flat tire — it’s a never-go-flat tire.”
The Tweel was put on a lot of Deere’s zero-turn radius (ZTR) products, and found success, especially for commercial cutters where a lot of the downtime was spent replacing flat tires.
The John Deere SpinSteer
Even through its many successes, John Deere does not quite have the perfect record. Southall points to the John Deere SpinSteer (SST), a ZTR mower with a steering wheel. Typically ZTR mowers were controlled by two levers, which is still the predominant way they’re set up, but Deere heard from customers that many of them weren’t comfortable operating with that control scheme.
After designing the mower with the steering wheel, Deere ran into some issues during development and testing: It didn’t track hills as well as some other competitive 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 afraid to not go ahead and introduce it because we put billboards and commercials everywhere,” says Southall. “So we went ahead and went to the market with it.”
In the meantime, the engineering group was working on the solution to it, which was ready midway through its first season on the market, and were planning to introduce it in the second season. Unfortunately for Deere, it was too late. It was such a negative to customers that once word got out, the SST never recovered, even though, according to Southall, it was better than what the competition offered.
“It had some good outcomes,” says Southall. “It was very uncomfortable at the time, but we had some good learnings from it.”
He says one of these learnings was to never go to market if the product doesn’t at least meet, if not beat, the customer’s expectations. In addition, some of the things they learned from working on the design have been incorporated into ZTR products Deere still produces today.
Meeting the mass market
In 2001, John Deere introduced its line of L100 lawn equipment to the mass market at Home Depot and Lowe’s. Initially, Deere only had one assembly line at Greenville because it wasn’t sure how it was going to be received in the market.
“The first year out, we had more demand than we could produce on one assembly line, year-round,” says Southall. “We quickly went into putting in the second assembly line, but in that meantime, we also produced them at Horicon to supplement that production.”
Today, 100% of the L100s are produced out of the Greenville facility, but the two factories share common mower deck shells, so a lot of the stamping for products is done at Horicon.
Like most industries, John Deere’s factories were disrupted toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it hit, no one knew what they needed to do to navigate it. Southall’s factory shut down 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 as a staff daily and walked through those issues together, creating documentation, policies, and procedures which are still in place today.
As the pandemic has cooled down, Deere, among other manufacturers, still faces a tough situation with the global supply chain crisis. To counter this, Deere has put in tools that can look at the factory’s inventory and components it has in-house, the demand for a product, and what orders it has. The factory has tools that can run production simulations of certain lineups of products to see what can be produced that’s on order.
“If we’re supposed to produce a certain amount of a lawn tractor today, but we have an engine delay, or we have another component that we’re not going to get, we can pull that out of the lineup, and pull in something that was supposed to be produced tomorrow, or the next day,” says Southall. “We can run the simulation to make sure we have those parts, and then settle in on what we’re going to produce today.”
In the past, there would have been enough supply coming in and inventory available to run whatever was in the schedule. Once in a while, a quality issue might catch production, says Southall, but otherwise everything ran on schedule.
“We’ve had to create a lot of flexibility, and utilize or use the flexibility that we already had in the factory because of the issues that we’re dealing with now,” says Southall.