Deere in the Headlights

Mac and I tossed down a pork-o-licious breakfast in Waterloo, Iowa Monday morning and then dashed off to the John Deere assembly plant just east of town for a 10:00 tour.  We were first shown a brief video and then each of us was issued our very own pair of safety glasses (oh boy oh boy oh boy) before our silver haired tour guide led us to a waiting tram. One entire car of the open topped tram was already packed with "Golden Key" customers, each of them grinning ear to ear since they were being taken on a special behind the scenes tour that would culminate by the end of the day in their being allowed to start their very own tractor (i.e., the one they had ordered) for the first time.

Oh and by the way, as has been the case with every single tour I've taken of this sort, absolutely NO photos were allowed so I'll have to rely on narrative alone.

Our tour guide turned out to be amazing.  He'd been employed on the assembly line for over 27 years and was able to name every part of every model we passed.  He also cracked some rotten jokes, which in my experience almost always makes a tour better.  He told us a story I particularly enjoyed as we were pausing to watch the painting robots paint chassis after chassis in regulation John Deere colors.  The robots had been taught their painting routine by a fellow that had worked on the painting line for many years. Fancy software engineers had captured the strokes of the experienced painter using virtual reality techniques, translating subtle movements of the human arm into a computer program that moved the robotic nozzle in exactly the same way as the practiced hands.  When the robots were finally fired up, the engineers were mystified when they observed the robots making a series of wild, inexplicable movements at the very end of the routine. What they soon discovered was that the experienced painter had sneezed just as he'd finished his last stroke and the involuntary moment of his arm was captured along with all the official movements.  That's such  a lovely industrial fable, isn't it?!

A variety of tractors are made at this particular plant, my favorite of which was the 8345R.  I've hunted up a picture from the internet since I wasn't able to take one of my own:

Would you look at that thing!  It's gigantic!  The rear wheel is probably 5 or 6 feet tall and dude, it has tank treads!  I hadn't planned on being so impressed with a tractor, but I just couldn't help myself when I saw the 8345R.

If it's not already obvious, I really really enjoyed my tour.  I've been on a good number of assembly line tours over the years, and I have to say John Deere ranks as my second favorite to date - so good it almost knocked Hundyai out of the top spot!  Hundyai still reigns supreme due to the sheer number of robots alone, but John Deere managed to get every single thing right about their tour.  It was mpressive, but not too slick; comprehensive yet intimate.  Hell, we even got to keep our safety glasses!

As we stepped off the tram at the conclusion of our tour, I noticed a row of glass showcases near the exit that held row after row of small green and yellow objects.  When I went over to investigate, I found a display of the work of one Jim the Welder, fabricator extraordinare.  Jim happened to be walking by as I was exclaiming loudly about how much I liked the display, so he stopped to tell me about the pieces he'd constructed over the years.  Jim, it turns out, is one of the chief metal fabricators at the plant, designing and building all sorts of custom metal work for the assembly line.  Years ago in his spare time, he started making miniature metal sculptures of familiar everyday objects (e.g., a biplane, a motorcycle) which incorporate the classic shapes and colors of John Deere tractors.  Tiny Frankenstein objects that are part tractor and part tug boat or fire truck.  They're hard to describe, and since I wasn't able to take pictures will remain sadly unrepresented here - a real pity since they were such delightful little sculptures, each and every one of them.  You could tell Jim got a kick out of seeing someone who enjoyed his work so much.

Before leaving, we walked out to the two show tractors parked in large circles of concrete in front of the plant so we could take a look at some of the finished products up close.  I found that I saw the tractors in a completely new light, now that I'd seen their individual components being lashed together, painted and tested.  What I had previously dismissed in my mind as a rudimentary, uninteresting farm vehicle I now saw with respect and even an awe of sorts.  It made me think of how hard some people work day in and day out while I just flit around the country having fun.  I'm glad they have air conditioned cabins with MP3 players to make their job a little more pleasant and easy.

We hadn't been back on the road long, when we ran across this scene on the main street of a tiny town south of Waterloo:

I think if it were me, I'd have gone through the drive through instead.

Mac and I headed south to the city of  Newton so we could make a stop at the Maytag dairy where they've been producing the famous blue cheese you may have heard of since the early 40s.  After a quick stop at the cheese shop to provision our larders, we headed on toward Davenport where we'd decided to spend the night.  Mac found us a route that followed along the bank of the mighty mighty Mississippi, just as the sunset was beginning to fade and it was a lovely end to the day's journey. 

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