There aren’t many brands that have the iconic status of John Deere. The signature green and yellow colors and leaping deer graphic are instantly recognizable. It’s a company whose roots as an agricultural machine company date back well over a century and they’ve spent the past 50 of those years manufacturing lawn and garden equipment, most notably lawn tractors (aka riding mowers).
A couple months ago I had the pleasure of touring the John Deere Horicon
Works manufacturing facility in Horicon, Wisconsin, a small town
located about 45 miles northeast of Madison. Horicon Works is the
facility that currently manufactures John Deere’s X300, X500 and X700
Series lawn tractors and the EZtrak zero-turn mowers. They’ve been
manufacturing John Deere equipment at this facility since 1911 and are
celebrating their 50th anniversary of manufacturing lawn tractors.
VIDEO TOUR: This collection of photos and a video that I
shot throughout the day gives you a good sense of how these mowers are
built and tested at John Deere Horicon Works.
Then and now. The new flagship X700 Series and a beautifully maintained John Deere 110. That 110 was number 60 off the assembly line in the first run of lawn tractors at the John Deere Horicon Works in 1963. I’d like one of each, please.
The John Deere Horicon Works is located in the heart of Horicon, Wisconsin. Can you spot it?
Horicon Works History
Here’s a very brief timeline overview (Provided by John Deere)
1861 – Founded by the Van Brunt Family
1911 – John Deere purchased the factory
1947 – First manufactured grain drills; between 1947 and 1951, 48 percent of all grain drill production in the U.S. was located in Horicon, Wisconsin
1958 – Factory name changed to John Deere Horicon Works
1963 – John Deere 110 Lawn & Garden Tractor was introduced
Mad Men era lawn care!
1968 - John Deere tractors have not always been green and yellow. Custom colors were introduced with a line of "Patio Tractors". The base color was Dogwood White and there were four options for the hood and trim: Patio Red, Sunset Orange, April Yellow and Spruce Blue.
1970 – Introduced the Rear Engine Riding Lawn Mower (today known as the EZtrak zero-turn radius mower)
1972 – Introduced the first John Deere electric riding lawn mower
1974 – Steel stamping building (101) opened, the 100 series lawn tractors and the 200, 300 and 400 series lawn & garden tractors were introduced
2012 – 9 million RLE products produced by John Deere Horicon Works
Safety first! Timothy Dahl from Charles & Hudson, Ethan Hagan from One Project Closer and I are suited up for the factory tour. By the way, you might recognize Timothy and Ethan as two of our regular HANDY Blog contributors.
Next, we toured the facility where they make nearly every metal part for each machine that they build. The amazing variety of parts are made and painted on-site. The parts are made through a variety of processes, including stamping, laser cutting, bending, hand welding and robot welding. One competitive advantage they have is their on-site ability to stamp heavier gauge steel than their competitors, making it possible to stamp (rather than fabricate) even their large commercial mower decks. The stamped decks are reported to be more durable than a fabricated deck. Finally, the corrosion inhibitor, electrostatic priming and painting (above) and drying process take place over roughly seven miles of conveyor line.
The finished parts are then transported to the assembly facility. Each mower rides a robot cart (above) on through a series of assembly stations. It’s a very hi-tech, but is still a very hands-on process. I was impressed by the focus and attention-to-detail that was demonstrated by each team member along the line. There’s no room for slackers on that line.
One misconception that was addressed was that the big box retailers carry a lower quality version of their mowers (specifically the D100 series) than the John Deere dealers. This is not true. John Deere was very direct in stating that their mowers, including the D100 series which are manufactured in Greenville, Tennessee, are manufactured with the same process and parts, regardless of where they are sold.
From the factory we traveled out to the Swan Road Test Site where they put each mower (and the Gator utility vehicles) through their paces. This facility features 400 acres of test areas that allow John Deere to put each machine through a wide range of highly controlled tests on a variety of turfs and terrains (including the kidney-jarring bump track, below))
We drove the EZtrak zero-turn mowers and the 100, X300, X500 and new flagship X700 Series lawn tractors. They also had several comparable competitors of each model on hand for us to drive and compare. The John Deere models compared favorably at each test.
I’ve driven a lot of different riding lawn mowers over the years, but this was my first opportunity to drive one with four-wheel steering and power-assisted steering. I always thought zero-turn mowers were the most maneuverable--I was wrong. Zero-turn mowers are great for mowing large areas fast and they do turn on a dime, but when it comes to maneuvering around obstacles, such as trees or planting beds, nothing beats the ease of four-wheel steering. Add the power-assist feature to four-wheel steering and turning even the large X700 mower was nearly effortless.
The wheels are positioned and engineered on this four-wheel steering mower so that turn radius is centered just off the center of the mower deck, making it very intuitive to control tight turns.
Thank you to John Deere for giving me and the other media reps access into their facility. It was very interesting to learn about their manufacturing process, the history of Horicon Works and their latest line of lawn tractors. The biggest impression I came away with was not the lawn mowers. It was the history of this plant and its importance in the community. It was obvious to all of us that the John Deere crew wasn’t putting on an act for us. Everyone—from the workers that make the parts, to the assembly line group, to the team at the testing facility—takes real pride and ownership in their part of the process and ultimately in the equipment that they build.