DUBUQUE, Iowa — This must be what it feels like to be God. I’m 8 feet off the ground, atop 94,000 pounds of shuddering steel, massive push beams the size of tree trunks holding aloft a towering, 13-foot-wide blade that’s advancing in front of me with the grim, relentless cadence of Caesar’s Roman army laying siege. Below, tracks more than 11 feet long on either side churn into the dirt as the rig’s 13.5-liter diesel throbs and bellows with 1,162 lb-ft of torque. Up ahead, I can almost see the massive mound of earth in our path begin to wince.
This is the John Deere 1050K crawler dozer—what city boys like me call a bulldozer—the largest and most powerful the company has ever built, a yellow-and-black Optimus Prime capable, it seems to me, of busting right through the Great Wall of China. Ten minutes ago, I’d never been in a crawler before. Now I’m seated inside the 1050K’s windowed cab, piloting this snorting behemoth alone. If I forget how to make it stop, I might just plow straight through to the Great Wall after all.
You would think a machine so brutish would require a crew of whip-snapping lion tamers to manage. But no. Despite the ease with which it can transform anything in its path into a Belgian waffle, the 1050K is a pussycat. Steering and speed are controlled with an intuitive joystick and a small thumb switch. A set-and-forget power-management system automatically maintains optimum engine rpm. A hydrostatic transmission (essentially a continuously variable tranny that requires no gear changing by the operator) means I’m able to manage the monster’s pace with one hand. The airy cab is heated, air-conditioned, and outfitted with an iPod-ready audio system. If I were so inclined, I could effortlessly bash the nearby maintenance building into rubble while simultaneously relaxing to Franz Liszt’s “Liebesträume No. 3 in A Major.” And on top of it all, the 1050K looks less like an ungainly construction implement and more like a piece of modern sculpture.
“Because of their work in automotive, Designworks is highlighting areas where we can bring in new materials. We’ve now got plastic roof lines, plastic handholds that allow us to bring together complex shapes without a lot of expense.”
For that, the folks at John Deere in part can thank their colleagues at BMW Designworks.
John Deere never lived to see a tractor with his name on it. It was 1837 when the blacksmith from Grand Detour, Illinois, invented the self-scouring steel plow that would revolutionize the farming industry. (Prior to Deere’s innovation, wooden or iron plows had to be stopped regularly and cleared of muck.) It wasn’t until 1912, after John and his son and business partner, Charles, were both dead, that Deere & Company president William Butterworth made the decision that would make the John Deere name famous worldwide: The brand began building tractors. By 1923, Deere had unveiled its legendary Model D, a two-cylinder design that would remain in production for an incredible 30 years.
In those early days, a tractor’s appearance meant nothing. Not to tractor makers. Not to buyers. Indeed, most tractors were of the “unstyled” variety, their various mechanical components hanging out like the frog you dissected in high school. But by the late 1930s, in an effort to differentiate themselves, tractor companies began to design their wares. Some, such as Ford, employed in-house stylists. Deere went a different way. In 1937, the company turned to renowned New York City industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. By then Dreyfuss was already an acknowledged virtuoso, a human-factors pioneer who had fashioned everything from streamlined locomotives to the iconic Western Electric “I Love Lucy” 302 Bakelite telephone. He’d never even seen a tractor before, but Dreyfuss was so taken by the notion of working on one, it’s said that he jumped on a train to the Deere factory—then in Waterloo, Iowa—the same night.
Dreyfuss-designed tractors first appeared in 1938. He streamlined the much-beloved Model A (Deere’s first tractor with adjustable wheel treads) by enclosing the previously open fan shaft and adding a grille around the radiator. “For more than 80 years now, we’ve had some level of industrial design in our products,” says Gordon Miller, director of construction engineering at Deere’s Construction and Forestry Division. “It’s more than just the mechanical side. It even extends to Deere’s green-and-yellow paint scheme, which is known globally.”
Since 1995, though, John Deere’s products have taken shape in concert with a decidedly different associate: BMW Designworks. American designer Chuck Pelly founded the studio in California in 1972, and it proved so successful that by 1995 Germany’s BMW Group had wholly acquired it. Based in Newbury Park, California, Designworks also boasts studios in Munich and Shanghai. Clients include such diverse brands as Coca-Cola, Dassault Aviation, and Mercury Marine. And, of course, John Deere. “Interestingly, Chuck Pelly used to work for Dreyfuss,” says Stephen Chadwick, director of global operations for Designworks (who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the aerodynamic properties of tennis balls). “So even way back, Pelly was helping John Deere out.”
The Deere/Designworks relationship bloomed from the start. “In the mid-’90s we were engaged on a new development, the H Series crawler,” says Doug Meyer, global director of construction engineering for Deere’s Construction and Forestry Division. “And one thing that’s always a struggle for us in construction is that we have various machine forms—from a backhoe to a skid-steer loader to a crawler—and to bring them all together somehow is a real challenge. So to give them all a similar language, a recognizable look and feel, we connected with Designworks.”
The H Series was a milestone for us because it was the first crawler on the market with a hydrostatic transmission,” Miller says. To help get it right, Deere and Designworks turned to customer-advocate groups—lots and lots of focus groups. “We always engage the customer throughout the entire development process—from initial sketches to foamcore cabin mock-ups to early prototypes,” Meyer says. “We even let them experience prototypes at their job sites. From where an operator wants to store their lunch box to the joystick location to how the doors open, it’s all on the table. Sometimes, based on what our customers say, we have to do a lot of work over again.”
Yet it’s never as simple as building what the customer wants. “Whether the customer admits it or not,” Chadwick explains, “how a product looks plays a big part in their purchase decision. It’s the same with construction equipment as it is with automobiles. The emotional side. I can remember a designer once coming up to me and saying, ‘We’re done. This thing does everything we wanted it do to.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Yep, but it doesn’t look very good.’ It’s amazing. We might just break apart a few lines, blend a few surfaces. Sometimes it doesn’t cost us an extra cent. But the machine has to have good industrial design.”
The machine doesn’t just have to look good, it’s also got to look right. Brett Bedard, Deere’s manager of marketing communications, says, “A machine can be fully capable, but if it doesn’t look strong enough, the customer will ding it. They’ll say, ‘This one looks beefier.’ And you can counter with, ‘Well, ours will push more dirt.’ But if it doesn’t look like it can, the customer will say, ‘Well, I’m not buying it.’” Chadwick agrees: “We can identify from the outset how the machine form should look. Then we can test that with the customers, get the buy-in from them. It’s a constant validation process, making course corrections along the way.”
Meyer highlights another benefit of having Designworks on board: the studio’s automotive expertise. “Because of their work in automotive, Designworks is constantly highlighting areas where we can bring in new materials they’ve worked with, such as plastics. We’ve now got plastic roof lines, plastic handholds that allow us to bring together complex shapes without a lot of expense. Their designers see things in other industries and bring them into ours.”
Tonka toy heaven!
Designworks apparently did its part on the H Series, because the crawler was a hit. And in the two-plus decades since, the studio’s involvement has grown to include Deere’s entire spectrum of construction and forestry products. Indeed, Designworks is now considered “a strategic, enterprise-level supplier”— aka a partner. Today, the studio’s design influence has permeated the entire Deere product range. “For crawlers at least, we want angles that give a ‘moving forward’ look,” says Tim Post, engineering manager on crawlers. “It’s cues like the sloping hoodline. The roofline. The console layout and the color scheme. If you stand and look at our crawlers, the language carries through all the way from the 450 to the 1050—and into other product lines, too. Even from a distance, you can say, ‘That’s a Deere.’”
Designworks is now considered “a strategic, enterprise-level supplier,” aka a partner.
To see where Deere and Designworks are headed next, Robert Moore, engineering manager on backhoes, takes me out into the field to check out a model 410L, Deere’s second-largest backhoe. “You’ve got a loader bucket on the front and an excavator—or backhoe—at the rear,” Moore says. “But the thing is, the traditional backhoe form hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. It’s a tractor-based platform, and that’s always been a limitation.”
For a few minutes, I play around with the 410L, first scooping up dirt with the front bucket and then flipping the seat around to dig a deep hole with the excavator. Tonka toy heaven! I could do this all day. But Moore has other plans. He motions me to jump out of the cab and then hands me the newest product-development tool for Deere and Designworks: a pair of virtual reality goggles. I slip on the headset, and suddenly I’m looking 10 years into the future. There, “standing” before me where the 410L used to be, is a concept for a next-gen Deere backhoe: the so-called Fixstern. German for “fixed star,” fixstern is a word adopted by BMW to denote its pioneering design process (eyes fixed on a distant star). As applied to a backhoe, Fixstern basically means “wasn’t this thing in ‘Avatar’?”
“With VR, we’re able to sit together—engineers, designers, marketing people—and all see exactly what we’re building.
After switching the VR goggles to cockpit view, my hands grasp wildly at thin air as I attempt to “touch” the Fixstern’s controls. “We’re no longer constrained by having a tractor base,” Moore says. “The Fixstern is 20 percent lighter—thanks to emerging materials—has far better interior spaciousness and visibility, and features a hybrid powertrain for efficiency. With VR, you’re able to ‘see’ just what an operator would see from the driver’s seat. Notice the Fixstern’s backhoe. We’ve created a double-jointed mechanism that allows us to pivot the arm left or right of center. Right now the arm is on the right, giving you excellent visibility to the trench in front of you. In the 410L, the center-mounted arm blocks the trench.” Moore is correct. The Fixstern’s view to my “construction site” is vastly improved.
“With VR, we’re able to sit together in a conference room—engineers, designers, marketing people—and all see exactly what we’re building, discuss changes, where are we going to get this part. It’s revolutionary,” Moore says. Then he laughs. “Imagine me, Mr. Pocket Protector. In meetings I used to have to draw this stuff!”
For the past 20 minutes I’ve been charging the 1050K crawler into a massive mound of dirt, gouging out Cadillac Escalade-sized loads with the front bucket, then dumping them into another pile nearby. And by this point my new dirt pile has grown to a sizable mountain of its own. After making a final deposit into my dirt bank, suddenly I realize the 1050K and I are straddling the top of the mound. I’m staring almost straight up into the sky, the blade poised to dig into the clouds, the whole 47-ton leviathan practically teetering atop my pile’s summit. Do I back up? Go forward? I scramble around the cockpit. Surely there has to be an ejection switch in here. But no, I’m on my own.
I make the decision to go forward. I ease the 1050K ahead, gingerly, slowly … when suddenly the beast dives over the top, almost falls, and then with a thundering ka-blam, blade and tank tracks and mammoth diesel engine come crashing back to earth. Incredibly, the 1050K shakes it off as if this were business as usual. Me? I feel like a skydiver who’s just returned to Earth without a parachute.
As I step down from the cab, one of the 1050K’s attendants walks over and slaps one of the crawler’s treads. “Nice work!” he says with a laugh. “I’ve never seen this big ol’ boy do that!”
I smile back. But inside I’m thinking, “Well, duh. This Deere’s got BMW in it.”