Editor's Note: One in a number of stories in the 2018 Progress Edition. For all of the stories, go to the Courier Progress 2018 section.
WATERLOO — John Deere is beginning its second century in Waterloo with a second wind.
The Moline, Ill.-based agricultural implement manufacturer, which has its largest North American manufacturing complex in Waterloo-Cedar Falls is hiring, reaping the benefits of millions in capital investment in facilities.
Deere is planning a big community party in June celebrating its 100th anniversary in Waterloo.
Deere employs a total of 5,000 people in Waterloo. Company fortunes have rebounded markedly from an ag downturn that resulted in the layoff of about 900 workers in recent years. It’s a welcome contrast from when Dave DeVault became Waterloo operations general manager in 2014.
“Anyone that was laid off in 2014 or early 2015, all employees with potential recall have been recalled at this point,” DeVault said. “We did hire 27 new employees in the foundry at the end of last calendar year. And we’re actively looking at interviewing, more so right now to fill up the pool of potential employees. What we’ve found is that it takes a long time to build up a talent pool of potential employees. So we go through the screening and the testing, interviews and medical evaluations.”
It takes about three months for an employment candidate to work through that process. “We like to keep a talent pool 50 to 100 deep so if things change one way or another we can go up appropriately in production,” DeVault said.
“The type of positions we’re looking at right now, No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 would be skilled trades,” DeVault said. “Mechanical repairmen, electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters, that group. Skilled trades are tough to come by because they’re very good at what they do and they tend not to want to change employers in their career, which is understandable. So that’s a challenge. And we also hire from the skilled trades into the salaried (management) ranks, because we need good on-the-ground understanding from an engineering standpoint.
“We have an apprentice program, and we also have a school-to-work program we’re working with Hawkeye (Community College) on as far as the apprentice (training) goes,” DeVault said. “We’ve gotten that up and running in the past couple of years, and it’s good. Really. Not just beneficial, but it’s been good for the community in bringing more and more of that talent into our area.”
There’s also a demand for machinists, DeVault said, and Hawkeye Community College is working closely with the company to provide qualified workers with training in computerized numerical control, or CNC, manufacturing. There’s a smaller demand for welders, and assemblers make up the bulk of Deere’s work force.
The company is finding enough workers locally, and beyond, DeVault said.
“From the schools around the country, we do regular campaigns, regular interview schedules,” DeVault said. “We draw from multiple different schools. I was out at Donald Street (tractor cap assembly operations) looking for a parking spot, just looking at the license plates and the different college stickers on cars today. It’s pretty cool. It’s no longer just Iowa State and the University of Iowa, let’s put it that way.”
The company has made significant improvements in the foundry over the past several years, said DeVault and Dave Davis of the foundry operations. And those improvements are a sight to see.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words. And walking through it is worth a million,” DeVault said.
“Starting in the core room we added some cells that will handle larger cores which go in the castings,” Davis said. “We put in an automated store and retrieval system.”
A new massive mold line is known in the plant as the “804 line.”
“We’ve been ramping that up for four years and we’re finally at a pace or a rate we feel pretty good about. The quality is where we need it to be. And with this new line we’re able to produce larger parts. That was the biggest advantage for us. We’re able to make longer and wider parts than we were on our previous lines,” Davis said.
Those parts are sent to plants companywide.
The foundry is in hot demand within Deere as the company upgrades and introduces new products.
“Right now we have plenty to do,” Davis said. “We have more work than we can bring in as we improve our efficiencies. The next generation of tractors is really going to maximize the advantages we have with this foundry. The size, the technology we have, the complexity of what we can produce is just far better than most others in the industry.”
It also has allowed the company to bring work that has previously been outsourced back into the plant.
“We have to really be careful on the balance between the new products we’re designing and the current products we’re building, so we keep that balance in the scale of what we can produce at the foundry,” DeVault said. “Now that we have that competency here, we’re able to design larger and more complex castings out of our design community into the foundry. We want to make sure we keep the runway open for that new work coming in.”
The foundry also provides staff support to sister factories in Brazil, North Carolina — where greens mowers are produced — and other plants.
Expansion of other elements of the Waterloo operation will begin this year, DeVault said. “We’ll start seeing some expansion on the southwest building of drivetrain (operations), the company’s “T-10” building at Westfield Avenue and the Commercial Street extension. We’re going to expand that building for more transmission assembly capability there.”
Also, DeVault said, “We’re rearranging the one right on Westfield Avenue, the service parts building (east of the foundry) the ‘1020 building,’ rearranging that one. We are renovating the building right off River Drive on the back side of Black Hawk Creek, the ‘1010 building.’ “ It had been idle for decades and has been used for temporary machine storage during the redevelopment of other facilities over the past 15 years. “Now that we’re needing the extra assembly space, we’re renovating it” for storerooms and other purposes to free up manufacturing space in the service parts building.
The Donald Street site will see infrastructure improvements and “rearrangement of assembly lines, getting ready for different changes coming out over the next three years,” DeVault said. And Deere will be putting a training center in the new Courtyard by Mariott hotel at the Cedar Valley TechWorks campus.
“The community will see the drivetrain group (work) first, from the outside,” DeVault said, with that work beginning in the spring.
“From a company standpoint we’re in the next phase of re-engineering the products and the factories that we do it in,” DeVault said. “And we got ready for it here five or six years ago with the foundry, modernizing it. We did it in redevelopment back in 2003-10 at drivetrain (Westfield) and tractor cab assembly operations (Donald Street). Now here we are 10 years later looking at a refresh again. We’ve got the foundation in on the foundry to do what we need to do; we have the foundation in the component part of drivetrain,” and now that will continue with additional work at drivetrain operations and at Donald Street. That’s in addition to new product research and development at the Product Engineering Center in Cedar Falls. It represents a capital investment, in rough figures, of about $100 million within Black Hawk County.
“It’s cool. That’s really neat to see,” DeVault said of new product research.
Deere is planning a celebration June 15-16 downtown and at the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum to mark the company’s 100th anniversary in Waterloo. Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co, makers of the “Waterloo Boy” tractor, in March 1918. The museum also has ongoing exhibits marking the anniversary. Tractors produced will be marked with a 100th anniversary logo.
Both DeVault and Davis said they have much respect for the local Deere workforce.