by Chuck Roth
As engineers, we sometimes find it easy to get bogged down in the daily grind. For me, it's designing parts, releasing parts, figuring out how they break or might break, then redesigning and releasing them again. Eventually they get better, but usually there isn't much real fanfare surrounding the whole process. However, over the last month I had the opportunity to participate in a unique celebration. You see, 20 years ago, John Deere introduced the 8000 series of tractor. It was a whole new take on what the large row-crop tractor could be.
The “Celebr8 Event” began with engineers talking about each tractor series starting with the latest, the 2014 edition of the 8000, or 8R as it’s now called – top model 8370R – and working our way back each week through Model Year 2011 (MY11, 8360R), MY09 (8345R), “30 Series” (8530), “20 Series” (8520), “10 Series” (8410), culminating with the original 8000 series (8400). Every major change listed had significant challenges, opportunities, and successes, and through it all, a story began to emerge.
It began on a plane ride headed east over the Atlantic. In 1987, an engineering manager by the name of Terry Woods couldn’t sleep so he began drawing an idea for a new tractor. The then-current “50 series” row crops had brought in mechanical front wheel drive, but these new large front tires presented turning challenges when they would hit the frame - a frame that also obstructed visibility, made things hard to service, and so many other woes. What to do? Quoting from US Patent 5152364, his idea was to create “A work vehicle configuration…engine directly over the front axle…cooling system radiator far enough forward to allow even large tires to turn…a tall but very narrow transmission forward of the operator enclosure. This allows the vehicle to be provided with a wasp-waist, significantly improving visibility.” Of course that drawing and patent don’t embody the entire tractor that was revealed to customers in September 1994, but the key elements of visibility, maneuverability, and focus on the operator permeate the design.
Looking back at that original idea and the tractor that resulted from it, one cannot be anything but inspired. What they were able to build in 1994 shaped the John Deere tractor and company for the last 20 years, and undoubtedly, the next 20. However, what was maybe more interesting was the statement one of the original engineers, Greg Sparks, made when asked what made the team so successful. “I believe it was because a lot of us were Ag Engineers, we grew up on farms and knew what it was like to do that job.” The value of the exposure they received as farm kids and at various universities learning what it was to be an Ag Engineer was rolled into that original, ground-breaking 8000 series. However, that innovation and value didn’t stop at the tractor or even the company banner it carries with it. It pushed, pulled, and carried an entire industry, and in fact, a large majority of the agriculture community with it.
But even as we in Waterloo, Iowa, celebrate 20 years of a tractor as a “big deal,” it is but a small tale in the much larger story of the impact that Ag Engineering has had on the ability of the world to produce the food, fiber, and fuel for our growing population. So let’s all take a step back from that daily grind and remind ourselves of the impact we have on the every-day lives of our family, friends, and neighbors, both in our own community and around the world.