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John Deere Welland Works

In early 2001, Deere & Company’s Welland, Ontario production facility began revamping their finishing line to utilize e-coat and powder coat – forcing them to change the way they built the John Deere brand loaders, cutters and Gator™ utility vehicles produced there.

Prior to switching to their new 90,000 square foot finishing e-coat and powder line – which includes over five miles of conveyors and several HMI stations — Deere completely assembled their products and wet-sprayed them their famous John Deere green. This included plated fittings, cylinders, hoses, and all other external surfaces.

While wet spraying worked for many years, John Deere Welland Works knew it needed to update its finishing process to deliver the quality, long-lasting products they’d grown famous for. Unfortunately, they had little experience with e-coat and powder coat at the facility — or the masking technology needed to keep specific surfaces from being coated.

E-coat & powder coat; a steep learning curve

Utilizing e-coat and powder forced the Welland facility to completely revamp its production process; suddenly, they had to finish their products first, then assemble them. In addition, some components needed to have their finish applied by the company’s suppliers – an example being the plated oil lines used on the loaders.

From the Welland facility both Ed Kaczmarczyk and Darryl Schneider had been assigned the responsibility for the development of all the new hang methods and masking requirements. Ed put the magnitude of the change succinctly: “We had to reengineer the product assembly lines, and in some cases we reengineered the products themselves to better suit the new paint system.”

The only experience Deere’s Welland plant had with e-coat and powder was their six-wheel Gator utility vehicle, which was finished at a location outside the plant.

Overcoming masking hurdles

One of the major hurdles to overcome was a process that was entirely new to Deere: product masking. Kaczmarczyk admitted that “To me, masking meant tape. I had no idea what was involved at the start of the project.”

Masking involves keeping e-coat and powder away from surfaces that should not be coated – despite the fact that e-coat and powder coat are “all-over” processes that attempt to coat every accessible surface. Tape-based masking products – which are often die-cut to special shapes – are a common masking method, as are three-dimensional plugs and caps which protect holes, threaded areas and other surfaces. In many cases, custom molded masks are needed to fit specific masking requirements and unusual sizes or shapes

After reviewing several masking suppliers, John Deere Welland chose to work with Shercon, a Santa Fe Springs, CA-based producer of custom molded masks and standard, off-the-shelf masking products and accessories. According to Kaczmarczyk, Shercon was chosen because they were willing to allocate significant engineering resources to Deere’s project

“We had less than a year to transfer everything over. We leaned on Shercon pretty heavily for expertise.”

Some of the problems confronting the team were wholly unexpected; for example, during testing they discovered that some bolted connections on two powder-coated surfaces tended to work loose, so a lot of surfaces that weren’t on the original mask list suddenly needed masking. Other surfaces required advanced masking techniques – some of which have lead to new products being developed for Shercon’s line of “standard” masking products.

Collaboration the key to success

Shercon assigned Design Engineer Ruben Dominguez to the Deere project. Dominguez remembered his first meeting with Darryl and Ed in June of 2001. “Deere supplied us with drawings a week before the meeting. When they arrived, we had a large, very detailed proposal waiting – along with a custom molded mask they could test on their Gator utility vehicle, which was still being coated by an outside vendor.”

In what was to become a highly collaborative process where both sides learned a great deal, Shercon provided a lot of the initial expertise. In one case during the evaluation of mask cleaning methods, Dominguez actually traveled with Deere representatives to look at tumblers designed to remove finish from masks before re-use.

Another excellent example of the power of collaboration was Deere’s initial estimate that over 150 custom-molded masks were needed on their line. Shercon suggested using a standardized “barb” on their two-piece plugs, and looking hard to standardize plug coverage wherever possible. At Deere’s end, they even reengineered product updates to accommodate new masking needs.

“The initial design process included consolidation as a goal,” said Kaczmarczyk. “At one point we grouped all our proposed masks and plugs into families, and looked for instances where the same mask or plug could serve several purposes. In some cases, we did this months before the product was scheduled for transition to powder paint”

As a result of this focus on standardization, the number of unique custom masks needed by Deere were cut by more than half, cutting development time and inventory costs for all parties involved.

Deere pushes for cutting edge solutions

According to Kaczmarczyk, one of the benefits of having little experience in e-coat and powder was the willingness of the team to challenge commonly held assumptions. The ability to challenge the Shercon design team resulted in several innovations for both sides, including a two-piece plug designed by Dominguez that precisely masked wash areas on both sides of a thin sheet-steel surface.

In fact, Dominguez designed more than 20 two-piece masking systems that operated with enough tension to protect wash areas even during Deere’s punishing 9-stage wash and e-coat process

Another technical triumph was the creation of an innovative block mask that allowed e-coat to penetrate and cover a surface, but kept powder coatings out. Several design iterations were required and several prototypes were tested before the “ideal” mask design was completed.

The mask used tiny “feet” to create a standoff space that was large enough to allow e-coat and washes to enter, but kept powder coatings at bay.

“It’s a great example of how Shercon and Deere kept pushing each other to come up with a better way to mask – both from their standpoint and ours,” said Dominguez.

Another custom mask was created for use over grease zerks (grease fittings), which are typically installed after finish has been applied. The assembly line people asked for this mask to simplify production; Shercon developed it and now lists it in their “standard” products catalog.

Focusing on mask longevity

While Deere and Shercon were overcoming technical hurdles and creating innovative masking solutions, Deere was also focused on the long term picture – mask longevity.

Kaczmarczyk and Schneider also studied the economics of masking and decided that spending a little extra up front for mask features like thicker plug walls and improved pull handles would pay off with longer mask life. Their conclusions seemed well founded. “Our original goal was to get 25 uses out of a mask before it wore out, but our masks are lasting far longer – they’re easily doubling their expected life, and some last as long as 200 uses.”

In another example of vendor/customer collaboration, Deere went beyond design innovations and asked Shercon for improvements in the compounds used to produce the masks.

Many of the custom masks were ultimately molded from Shercon’s Ultrabake masking material, which provides excellent tensile and tear strength, and exceptional compression set properties. (Compression set refers to a material’s resistance to acquiring a permanent set after exposure to high temperatures).

Summary: the partnership mattered

Revamping the entire production line involved huge changes for John Deere Welland Works; they essentially turned production upside-down by finishing before assembly, and had to deal with a steep learning curve involving every element of e-coat and powder coat.

Kaczmarczyk said that getting Shercon’s Dominguez out on the shop floor was key to the project: “It’s one thing to design a mask when you have a part on your desk – but when you see how the part is oriented on the line and see that the worker’s ability to move the part or install the masking may be limited, it makes all the difference.”

“We appreciated having a masking supplier who worked with us,” Kaczmarczyk said. “Both groups were willing to try new concepts and think outside the box, and everybody benefited as a result.”

Copyright © 2010 Greentree-Shercon