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Published September 10, 2012, 10:35 AM


Southwest Minn. tractor plant offers rare view

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

JACKSON, Minn. — It is much rarer for the public to see modern-day ag technology being developed up-close, than it is for the public to see machinery manufacturers of yesteryear.

AGCO Corp. has set a new standard for transparency in modern machinery development in the region. The company opened its Intivity Center and plant expansion in Jackson, Minn., in June. The facility is just off of Interstate 90, less than 100 miles east of Sioux Falls, S.D. Among other things, it features its impressive Intivity Center, open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with walking tours of the tractor manufacturing facility available Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The company hosted a two-day open house for 600 dealers in early June. Since then, about 5,000 have come through the facility — 30 percent from the general public, drawn in from a billboard on the highway.

The plant itself employs nearly 1,200 people in a town of 3,500. Together, they make about 5,000 or 6,000 units of various kinds of equipment each year — mainly large tractors and sprayers.

The company is poised for growth.

AGCO’s Jackson site has seen a lot of consolidation and growth, including the addition of Challenger tractors from DeKalb, Ill., in 2003. Challenger articulated tractors were inaugurated in 2007, and wheeled Massey Ferguson 8600 and Challenger MT series came in January 2011. AGCO makes all of its U.S. tractors in Jackson, tillage equipment in Beloit, Kan., and combines, windrowers and balers in Hesston, Kan. The company has joint marketing ventures with Amity Technology based in Fargo, N.D.

A farmer’s dream

AGCO is the No. 3 player in the North American farm equipment business. The company’s purpose is displayed in large letters on the wall: “High-tech Solutions for Professional Farmers Feeding the World.”

Production at Jackson doubled in the past year and will increase 50 percent in 2013, says Eric Fisher, director of operations at the site. “In production volumes over the next two years, we have our busiest slate of new product launches we’ve ever had. It’s exciting.”

The 16,000-square-foot Intivity Center celebrates the company’s history in Jackson, known locally as “Patent Town USA.” It has a past full of innovation.

Al McQuinn founded Ag-Chem manufacturing company here in the 1960s, producing RoGator and TerraGator brands. McQuinn’s patents include the first adjustable spray boom and the pneumatic system that blows fertilizer onto fields.

McQuinn interviewed various manufacturers when he looked to sell, but famously made the deal with AGCO because the company was onboard with staying in Jackson and in Minnesota.

Presentations of past and present leaders of AGCO are shown in the center, along with heroes of predecessor companies Allis-Chalmers and Deutz-Allis.

Stories are told about the ongoing Valmet engines — the electronic engines, as well as E3 (energy, economy and ecology) technology with selective catalytic reduction and constant variable transmissions. The center also features a company store full of souvenirs, including toy tractors and T-shirts.

But the big attraction at Jackson is the plant tour.

A factory tour

It starts with a short film, featuring local farmers and how they dream to feed the world. The viewing room is surrounded by high-art photo posters of the brands.

A tour guide takes the visitors into the north end of the tractor plant with its large windows, more than 20 feet high, punctuated with full-length black-and-white photos of farming in action.

The manufacturing process moves north to south, starting with a transaxle, or rear-end drive system. Tour-goers are provided with placards that explain what is happening in each area. It’s a mixed model manufacturing line, assembling both Challenger tracked and Massey Ferguson wheeled tractors — about 12 machines per day.

On one tour in mid-August, seven different models were going down the same assembly line at once. Each operation spot requires about an hour of work before the process moves ahead.

Above each station, a television monitor shows a countdown of how much time the worker has until the line is supposed to move. If there’s a problem, the worker hits a yellow button and a half-dozen trouble-shooters show up to help.

If workers punch green, their part of the process is finished. When all boxes on the screen turn green, a horn blows and the piece moves about 25 feet to the next area.

In May, AGCO started using robotic, automated guided vehicles (AGV) to move wheeled carts from a warehouse kitting area to the assembly line. The AGVs can pull one ton. Between deliveries, the curious white carts automatically pull themselves into docking areas to recharge their batteries.

Quality Gate One is a popular spot for tour-goers. This is where a kidney loop system checks all the fluid systems, filling the pumps and filters with oil, diesel fuel and coolants. They infuse the hydraulic oil with a fluorescent dye to allow black-light tests, ensuring none of the fittings are leaking. Later on, the systems do full functional checks with pressures and flows.

Cabs are sub-assembled off-line in a myriad of combinations. The appropriate piece is synchronized to be available at the time the rest of the tractor is being assembled on the main line. Similarly, the track assemblies are put together in another building and brought into the main building where they are painted.

In the final step, the machine is lifted with an in-floor hoist and rolled off the assembly, as the hoist returns to the floor.

A good team

AGCO is putting record investments into research and development, Fisher says. Jackson launches numerous new models every year.

“One of the big reasons we came here was the confidence in the workforce,” Fisher says. “There is pride out there and people want to show off.”

About a third of the plant’s workers are in fabrication — welding and painting and support. Another third are in sprayer assembly and the remaining third in tractor assembly. About 20 percent of the employees are women.

The company has partnerships with community colleges to help increase interest in welding and assembly positions. These are premium jobs and some workers commute from 50 miles away. The plant has no union.

“Over 70 percent of our workforce has some ties to agriculture,” Fisher says. “It almost builds a passion for agriculture that is hard to find in a metro area.”