One of the extraordinary things about the technology-dominated age we live in is the extent to which we take progress for granted. What was once jaw-droppingly amazing soon becomes simply ordinary. In fact, we have come to expect every new model of car, mobile phone or whatever to be quicker, quieter and nicer-looking than its predecessor. So it is with tractors too.
But who decides what level of technology goes into a new model of tractor? How many white-coated engineers does it take to get just the right feel to a hydraulic lever or hand throttle? How much testing goes on? And do makers ever copy their rivals’ designs?
There’s only one way to find out answers to questions like these and that’s to go to a tractor factory. And if you want to see a UK plant that’s the hub of a multinational tractor empire, the best place has to be New Holland’s plant at Basildon in south Essex.
This bustling town may not figure in many foreign tourists’ holiday plans but, if the smell of new metal and gear oil makes your pulse race, this is the place to be. The car park alone is the size of a small county and the horizon-spanning buildings remind you that manufacturing is still something we do rather well in this country.
In the deepest recesses of the plant I found Alistair Walshaw, New Holland’s T7000 product manager and a man who has been involved with the company for 20 years. He should know all about that semi-magical process by which a new tractor is conceived, not to mention the long gestation period before it emerges, blinking, into the bright light of the dealer’s forecourt.
“It’s very seldom that a tractor is totally new,” he explains patiently. “We all evolve what we already have and even new concepts use many existing parts. But all tractor makers have a strategic plan for new models that looks about 10 years ahead. What has changed the way manufacturers plan new models are worldwide emissions regulations,” he adds. “These are fixed points [and increasingly tough ones] that we have to achieve.”
It’s not just emissions regulations that are speeding up product lifecycles, either. A mere five years after a tractor model is launched, customers start to sniff the air for the next one, which they know will be bigger and better and have smarter electronics and whizzier features. They’re used to seeing this speed of model turnover with cars, points out Mr Walshaw, and instinctively expect to see the same thing with tractors.
So how do you make a new tractor? The recently-launched New Holland T7000 series (which spans the 170-210hp bit of the market) is a good example of just how fiendishly complicated the whole process is. Here’s what happened and when.
The T7000’s predecessor, the TM series, has only been in production for a couple of years, but the engineers’ thoughts are already turning to the model that will replace it.
The main reason is to do with the dreaded emissions regulations again – 2006 is the date by which manufacturers have to meet the latest Tier 3 standard.
But there needs to be a lot more to this new model than a sweet-smelling exhaust. Technology marches on and makers fall behind at their peril.
“We knew that the cab was in need of an update the styling was out of line with the newer TSA and TG ranges of tractors,” says Mr Walshaw.
Car makers often keep their products looking youthful by giving them a mid-life restyle, but at £2-3m just to re-tool for a new shape it’s an option that’s just too pricey even for a big tractor maker. And the look of a tractor, though more important than many farmers would admit, isn’t that high on a buyer’s list of priorities.
So tractor makers need to offer a goody-bag of improvements to performance, reliability, economy and features that will persuade farmers to open their cheque books.
The good news is that the board has given a provisional OK to the project, so it’s time to think about exactly what ingredients will go into this new model. Some of the components and know-how will come from within the company (CNH is lucky to be able to draw on the car and truck expertise of parent company Fiat) but some of the technological improvements come from specialist suppliers.
It’s tempting to compare building a tractor to building a car. But the key difference here is the volumes involved. CNH’s Basildon factory turns out 25,000 tractors a year, split into five or six ranges. That’s impressive enough in itself, but small beer compared to a big car maker like Toyota, which makes 8m cars a year. A better fit, size-wise, is with a specialist car maker like Ferrari, which turns out 3000 cars a year.
The relatively small production runs typical of tractor makers mean that specialist component makers are sometimes reluctant to work with them. Makers of cooling systems, suspensions, hydraulics and electrics are used to tractor makers coming to them spec sheet in hand, but for some car component companies the typical tractor production volumes are just too small.
What is also changing is the spread of industries that tractor makers draw technology and design ideas from. Once it was other heavy engineering sectors, now increasingly it’s the automotive industry and even consumer electronics sectors like mobile phones, GPS and hand-held computers that influence the design of your new tractor.
This is where it gets really complicated. The market researchers have a shortlist of customer priorities. The project engineers have chosen their bag of features which, in an ideal world, they’d like to see on the final tractor.
Now is the time to turn them into something solid. Computer simulations help speed up the evaluation process enormously, but for some items (especially if there’s an unusual element) a physical mock-up has to be made.
Ever wondered if a living, breathing human being designed, say, the foot throttle or the tiny squidgy button that raises and lowers the linkage? The answer is yes – every single component, no matter how humble, has a specialist behind it who thinks about nothing else for weeks on end.
Take something as specific as a tractor seat. Its design will have involved a specialist seat man (or woman), an armrest man, a soft trim man, a hard trim man and an armrest electronics man. If it was the engine or transmission, you’d be talking about a whole team. In total hundreds of people toil away at this magnificent task.
And they all have to talk to each other so that everything fits together. Not quite as spectacular as building a pyramid, maybe, but almost certainly a lot more complicated. And it’s the vehicle architect who has the toughest job. He has to take all the designs from the teams and physically fit them together, which is a bit like having to solve Rubik’s Cube over and over again.
Other specialisations ate involved, too, like the product cost managers. These are the guys who can hold a small plastic widget (like the end of a gear stick) in the palm of their hand and tell you, to the nearest penny, what it would cost to make.
Not just what the materials cost but how much you’ll have to shell out for the meaty hydraulic presses and other machine tools that will be needed to stamp it out. Another set of engineers deals with time itself. They know how long it will take to manufacture that widget in the first place, and – critically – how long it takes the man on the assembly line to fit it.
A lot of the components are coming together so it’s a good point to get some potential users in to see what they think of the show so far. Tractor makers can rarely run to the luxury of a clay mock-up of the whole tractor, but for this model the engineers have produced a full-size clay version of the bonnet to see what typical customers think of it.
This kind of thing is expensive, though. New Holland recently made three full-size polystyrene-and-plastic cab interiors and invited 48 farmer-customers to say which layout they preferred. In all, it took vast amounts of time and effort but it was, says Mr Walshaw, the only way of being sure which one would go down best.
Meanwhile suppliers have been alerted to the fact that new components will be needed, so they’ll have to change their own tooling. They are invariably involved with the design of these essential parts too.
Management wants regular updates on how the new project is progressing – understandable when you realise that a major product launch can cost many millions of pounds. So it’s time for a group of engineers and accountants to make a formal presentation to the main Fiat board in Italy.
No chance of basking in the Turin sunshine, though. Instead there’s the sort of intense, sweaty-palmed quizzing you’d expect when investment figures of this magnitude are involved.
Is the project delivering the features, quality and reliability farmers want? And can it do it at an affordable cost?
It’s time to see how well all those components will all work together. The only way of doing that is to make a prototype, though it’s an eye-wateringly expensive stage in the process because all the parts are one-offs lovingly crafted in a development workshop.
“You can spend tens of thousands of pounds on a prototype vehicle. And it can take anything from three to nine months to make.” says Mr Walshaw.
To keep the costs from spinning completely out of control, engineers hang the new components on a mule. Not the grumpy donkey relative, but a basic platform taken from existing NH models.
In this case the mule consisted of a driveline from a TM series tractor and a cab shell from the TSA range, to which one of the new engines was bolted. Then everything else is fitted on and the electronic engineers (think of Brains in Thunderbirds or Scotty in Star Trek) begin the fraught task of getting all the computer systems to talk to each other.
After copious amounts of testing, everyone is happy with the way the mule works. But it’s too early to be popping champagne corks yet because a mule gives you only limited clues as to whether the final product will be economic to make in quantity.
Now a batch of prototypes has to be built and these will be the first ones that go out to be tested by farmers (as opposed to engineers). These used to be hand-made, but that didn’t give much clue as to how easy or difficult they’d be to manufacture in large numbers.
So now they’re built on the assembly line in between existing models, which also gives the manufacturing personnel – the guys who actually put the tractors together – a chance to comment on the new design too.
They can be somewhat unreliable initially, but then that’s the point of the exercise. “Early models may break down, especially if they’re ones you’ve made lots of changes to already. But as you start fixing teething problems, they quickly get more reliable.”
Four months (and thousands of hours) of testing later and the tractors have been adapted and improved so much that they hardly bear any relation to the originals. But you can only do so much with a first prototype, so a batch of second-generation prototypes is built with all-new components.
These will spend much more time in the field and much less in the workshop but it, too, will be junked and replaced with a third-generation prototype that is getting close to what will finally trundle off the production line.
Just six months to go before the first production machines will come off the line and the engineers are looking distinctly happy. The prototypes are reliable and it’s time to commit to building the new model. Suppliers are given the final specs of the parts needed. Moulds start to be made and machine tools installed.
This is the point of no return, so it’s time for another formal meeting with management. The team are able to say that almost all concerns voiced by farmer testers have been fixed and those that haven’t should be sorted out before production begins.
Now the commercial side of the organisation swings into action, with distributor and press launches planned and dealers brought in to talk about potential order numbers. Like most manufacturers, New Holland will only make a tractor if a customer has ordered it.
This is what you might call the Claudia Schiffer stage, with a batch of tractors made specifically to travel the world as impeccably turned-out stars of launches for the public, press and dealers.
The first customer tractors begin to tiptoe off the line. Production begins slowly and then ramps up, with three T7000s made in the first week, 10 in the second and so on. These new models slot in with existing TMs and TSAs already going down the line, which helps the people assembling the new models to iron out any minor fitment bugs.
Full production levels of about 200 tractors a week (on an 8-hour, 5 days-a-week shift) are reached and the line is fairly singing.
Production of the new model is going well. Sales are buoyant around Europe, helped by good crop prices and farmers feeling strangely chirpy about the medium-term future. But the main projects team isn’t thinking about T7000s any more – their sights are set on 2011 when the next round of those the unloved emissions regs (Tier 4) comes in.
Though by rights the T7000 should go on longer than that, the need for expensive changes to the engine to meet those regs will prompt another model change, with new and exciting design features to help soften any price increase.
What exciting features are those? Some are driven by red tape, like increasingly sophisticated suspensions and seats to keep the driver compliant with the new EU Whole Body Vibration regulations, plus lower emissions and better fuel consumption from the new Tier 4 engines and maybe – brace yourself – tachographs for those who do a lot of road work.
Expect wizardry of Dumbledore proportions in the electronics department, too – high-speed internet on the combined computer and performance monitor, built-in GPS auto-steer and a built-in Bluetooth phone that activates as soon as you get in the cab.
And say goodbye to the grease-spattered instruction manual, too it’ll be replaced by helpful hints and how-to video clips on the in-cab computer screen. You heard it here first.
It’s important not to make a new tractor too complicated (and time-consuming) to assemble.
Every single component has a specialist behind it who thinks about nothing else for weeks on end.
Ever wondered if a living, breathing human being designed the tiny, squidgy lift-lever button?
The old order changeth. IT and emissions/ride vibration regulations are now driving tractor development.
Everything starts (inevitably) on a computer screen.
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