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Driving it off the lot

When their new combine was at the end of the assembly line, Leeann Minogue and her husband took a tour of CNH’s Nebraska plant

My husband had known for years that when you buy a new combine, if you show up at the combine plant on the right day, you can drive it off the assembly line yourself. Brad had always wanted to do this, but when he found out our new Case IH combine was scheduled to roll off the line in April, he didn’t imagine he’d be able to get away from the farm.

But when we still had six-foot snowbanks in the front yard in late March, Brad realized that the trip might be possible. He bought plane tickets, booked a hotel and worked out the logistics with our Case IH dealer.

Welcome to Nebraska

We flew in to Lincoln, Nebraska the night before our combine was scheduled to be finished. Lincoln is the closest airport to the factory in Grand Island — a city of about 50,000 people, 90 minutes west of Lincoln.

The next morning, we turned up at the plant at 10:00 a.m., to find out that our combine would be the last one off the line that day. We’d get to see as much of our combine’s “build” as possible in one day.

We had been a little worried about that. Who would have guessed that a corporation that puts together as many combines as Case IH could accurately predict when one specific combine would be finished, three weeks in advance?

But not only were they finishing our combine on the right day, they had a private tour guide waiting for us in the visitor’s area.

John Rasmussen spent the whole day with us. After 40 years as an engineer with CNH, Rasmussen seven years ago. Now he works part-time, leading factory tours. On average, one owner drives their new machine off the line every day. “Our record was seven in one day,” Rasmussen said. He told us Case IH provides a guide for all buyers who come to Grand Island to see their own combine to completion. “We’ll do everything we can to make this day special for you,” Rasmussen said.

The first part of making our day special was outfitting us with hardhats, protective eye wear, and steel-toed shoe covers. Then, Rasmussen led us into the huge, high-ceiling factory area (900,000 square feet). He told us there were 1,110 workers in the shop, and another 130 in admin offices in the next building. And this is only one of CNH’s three manufacturing buildings in Grand Island.

“Try to stay on this track,” he told us, pointing to a pedestrian zone marked with white paint. Generally, forklifts, electrical carts and other machines try to keep out of this walkway, to avoid hitting guests and staff.

It’s a good thing there was a safe track. There was a lot of stuff going on in this factor. With all the people, carts, and forklifts zooming around from place to place in the building, I was relieved that they don’t allow kids under 12 on these tours. It wouldn’t have taken long for our curious kindergartener to find a way to get hurt.

On the line

As you might expect, there are several assembly stations in the plant. When things are running according to plan, every combine stops at each of 31 different stations for 15 minutes.

Above each station, a large digital sign counts down the seconds to the end of the 15-minute cycle. The signs shows how many combines have been finished already, how many are left to finish today and what time they should be finished. If there are delays, workers will stay longer to finish the job. Generally, when the combines scheduled for the day are built, these non-unionized workers can go home.

These days, Rasmussen says, they’re building 29 combines a day at Grand Island, most days. But, as he reminds us, “These are good times.”

We got to the plant just in time to see the “marriage” of our machine — the big moment when the cab is attached to the frame for the first time. This is done by remote control, with hoists. This is the point where our combine begins to look like a combine for the first time — a perfect time for us to arrive.

I expected a combine factory to look like something from an old Charlie Chaplin movie, with each worker having a job like “attach Part B to Part A by turning wrench six times.” But it was nothing like that.

For one thing, there’s more than one type of combine going through the plant.

Years ago, assembly lines would turn out rows of identical machines. End user options would be added on later.

But the Grand Island plant is a “mixed model manufacturer.” Not only do they make both Case IH and New Holland brand combines in this plant, they make several different sizes of machine. Customer options are installed right on the factory floor.

The combine moving along the line behind ours was a yellow New Holland machine. The one in front was headed for Europe. It left the line with special EU road warning stickers. Lots of machines need special modification to meet foreign regulations — this is one of only two Case IH combine manufacturing plants in the world (the other is in Brazil). Combines built here ship to 34 different countries.

Rasmussen told us that all of the combines that come off this line are “complete when they go out the door.” This make the process more interesting for assembly line workers, but it also makes things more complicated. Staff need more skills, and need to work together as teams at each station. The serial number on each machine is used to track all of the options requested for the machine.

To get each combine right, workers use a “shopping list” to fill up a “kit cart” with the parts needed for each individual combine. One of these carts travels down the line with each combine.

There are a lot of parts to track. “If it wasn’t for computers, of course, there wouldn’t be a chance,” Rasmussen said.

Starting the machine

Soon it was time for the part Brad had been most excited about. Fairly soon after we got there, he got to start the new combine for the first time.

Rasmussen warned Brad not to be alarmed by the noise when he first turned the key. The air had to bleed out of the hydraulics. “There will be a lot of growling,” Rasmussen said.

I was nervous. What if we came all this way and it wouldn’t start?

On average, Rasmussen said, there are 18,000 parts in a combine. To make each machine start properly, Rasmussen said, “a lot of things have got to go right.”

Brad climbed the ladder and got into the cab. He turned the key. It started right up. Whew.

Brad stayed in the cab with the technician while they ran some basic tests. I waited with Rasmussen, watching from a semi-soundproofed area where we could see the same test results screen Brad and the technician were watching from the cab.

Brad’s ear-to-ear grin faded when the machine didn’t pass one of the tests. The screen was telling them to move the engine to high idle, but the results were showing 98.8 per cent instead of 100. Red lights on the screen were blinking “FAIL.”

The technician shut the combine off and tried again. Again: “FAIL.”

With so many moving parts, it seems quite possible that occasionally, a machine wouldn’t start. I wondered how often it happened to visiting customers. Rasmussen didn’t really answer my question, but he did say that problems or irregularities are noted electronically, and combines are always taken from the assembly line to another shop for fine-tuning before they’re shipped.

Brad looked really nervous when they tried the test for the third time. But finally the number reached 100 per cent and the red “FAIL” switched to a green “PASS.” Brad started smiling again.

Putting the parts together

Since our combine’s next few stops on the assembly line weren’t very interesting to watch, Rasmussen took us for some lunch, and then on a walk-around of the rest of the plant.

On the other side of the building, staff were using computer-programed laser cutters to custom-make combine parts out of steel. Expensive computerized machines allow staff to change the set up quickly to make different parts. The parts section doesn’t run on the same assembly line mode as the final assembly area. Here, different shift work seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

They make most combine parts right here, but not all of them. Transmissions are shipped in from Racine, Wisconsin. Fiat engines come from France. Tires are delivered continuously to the factory door during the day.

Every month, Rasmussen tells us, four to six million pounds of steel are delivered to the plant. They use a million pounds of welding wire a year. “That’s enough wire to go around the world almost twice,” Rasmussen said.

End of the line

We went back to the assembly line just in time to seem them attach the tires. “We only put one of the duals on,” Rasmussen says, “so they can move around the plant.” The rest of the tires, or tracks, are assembled at the end location, to cut shipping costs.

Then it was the side panels. We noticed that the Case IH panels were plastic, but the New Holland machines were getting metal side panels.

Rasmussen told us that our side panels are made of soybean-based plastic. “There’s about two bushels of soybeans in every combine,” Rasmussen said. “I tell customers that some of their own beans might be going home with them.”

The decals came next. This is just the decoration on the cake, but Rasmussen says some factory staff say this is the most difficult part. Nobody wants a crooked decal. The woman at this station ran a roller over our decal to glue it across the side of the combine.

“Looks pretty good, don’t it?” Rasmussen said. Brad said, “yup.”

Finally, six hours after the start of our tour, we were at the end of the line. They opened the factory door.

Brad climbed up into the cab. It was snowing and miserable, but I followed Rasmussen outside anyway. Why come this far and not get a photo of the final drive out?

Brad drove his new combine out of the plant, then across the lot. When he got out he was still grinning.

“How does it ride?” I asked.

“Great,” he said.

Let’s hope it runs this well when we get it into the field. †

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