By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News firstname.lastname@example.org
HESSTON - If there is anything to glean from all the hype - the white tents, the tour by the governor or the more than 900 customers and dealers who converged on the manufacturing plant here, it's this: AGCO, the smallest of the big three global agriculture machinery makers, means business. Inside the Hesston-based complex, more than 1,400 workers help to churn out products - from hay and forage equipment to harvesting machines - just as the company has for decades. That includes the Gleaner combine, which turns 90 years old this year. Yet, as AGCO celebrates the anniversary, leaders here have a vision of growth, positioning the company to claim some of the market share held by John Deere and CNH. AGCO unveiled a new Gleaner this week, and on Friday the company opened its new, more than $45 million, 200,000-square-foot paint center, with officials saying the future is bright for the growing business. "We needed - customers and dealer needed, wanted, deserved - better products," said Robert Crain, senior vice president and general manager of AGCO North America. "As part of that plan, we also commented into investing in our facilities. Our pledge right now is to develop innovative, market-leading - not competitive, but market-leading - products." The upbeat outlook comes after Hesston's plant laid off 60 full-time workers in June 2009, followed by another 154 the next month, in response to a slumping agriculture market and world economy. Yet, at that time, company leaders were looking for ways to grow the corporation. Crain said that in the past three years, AGCO has launched more than 40 new products, which includes the new S8 series Gleaner combine that was unveiled to dealers and customers Thursday night. "From planting to harvesting, these new products deliver innovative, cutting-edge technology that helps North American farmers work smarter and more efficiently," he said. "Our vision, AGCO's vision, is high-tech solutions for professional farmers feeding the world. And these new products helps our customers do more with less ... less time, less compaction, less labor, but more precision. In fact, many of these products are built right here in Hesston." 'Great strides' Last year, AGCO grew by $2.2 billion and the company is expected to grow the same, if not more, this year, Crain said. "We have made great strides, and we're on track to grow even more," he said. "And we will be growing. That is the sweet thing about this company: We will be constantly growing. As part of its goal to be a top-quality hay and harvesting equipment leader both domestically and globally, two years ago AGCO began work on the state-of-the-art dip and powder-coat paint facility, which consolidated Hesston's paint stations from two operations into one streamline building. About 75 percent of the parts manufactured at Hesston will go through the 17-step electrocoat process, which involves dipping parts in a series of solutions that remove all rust, scale and laser oxides, then applies high-performance corrosion and weather-resistant finishing comparable to that used in the automotive industry. "We have the same standard as Lexus, BMW," said Hans-Bernd Veltmaat, senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for AGCO. The remaining parts, which include gearboxes and drives - components that cannot withstand heat - will be painted using a liquid coating system. Also, the electrocoat and powder paint processes offer efficiency and environmental benefits as more than 95 percent of powder paint is transferred to the parts. What doesn't stick to the parts is captured in the system and reused. Only two other AGCO facilities have the new powder-coat technology, and neither of those also has a liquid system. Moreover, the paint facility is the company's largest and will eventually employ 55 to 60 people per shift. 'Two great revivals' Gov. Sam Brownback, who was on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the AGCO plant Friday, said AGCO's investment and ingenuity are one of the signs that Kansas is moving forward and growing. "Kansas is in the middle of two great revivals, if I can call it that - manufacturing and agriculture," Brownback said. "Manufacturing jobs are growing and agriculture is busting at the seams with an incredibly important function to feed a hungry world that keeps getting bigger and hungrier." He added, "I don't know of any industry in the world that is going to be called on to do more than the agriculture industry is, with less ... to feed a billion more people in the next 10 to 20 years." Much of the week's hype has been centered on the Gleaner combine, which, nine decades ago, was first manufactured by Nickerson, Kan., brothers George, Curtis and Ernest Baldwin. The industry's first self-propelled combine launched by the brothers in 1923 has grown into the three-model S8 Super series of combines from Gleaner. For months behind a fence at AGCO, the top-secret combine was kept and officials finally unveiled the new high-tech combine live on RFD TV during an event at Hartman Arena. It comes at a perfect time, said Kevin Bien, Gleaner brand marketing manager at AGCO. With all the rain, he expects the new Gleaner to optimally perform - a light piece of equipment that has better fuel consumption, wear and complexity while maximizing capacity, grain quality and durability. The (performance) torque on the engine is phenomenal," said Bien. "This is a big step up. We're going to give the customer out there better power, better torque, but he isn't going to have to jeopardize fuel efficiency." In fact, the Gleaner S8 is as much as 12,300 pounds lighter that other competitive brands of combines. Bien expressed that while others advertise horsepower, the sustained torque is what helps farmers get through the tougher crops. "What is the dynamics of the harvesting world we are going to face this fall? What is it going to mean?" asked Bien. "If it is real wet and the combine is real heavy, what happens to the amount of horsepower it takes? It will go up; what do you do in the field? You leave ruts." This machine, however, he said, because of its light and balanced weight distribution, can get through a muddy field when other combines need more horsepower and tracks to get through similar conditions. Other features The new series also features 9.8-liter, seven-cylinder engines, which meet Environmental Protection Agency emissions mandates. It also features increased engine-rated and maximum-boost horsepower, which is permitted by dual turbo-charging engines. Meanwhile, to keep farmers in the field longer, the fuel tank capacity has been increased 53 percent, from 150 to 230 gallons, and Bien said it runs quieter and cooler. It's also the industry's first Class 8 transverse rotary combine, Bien said. He added that the combine could accomplish in one pass what it takes an axial rotor combine to do in two passes. "This is probably one of the more exciting opportunities I have had with the company," said Bien, who has worked for AGCO for 38 years. "We made some pretty radical changes to the machine." That includes the color - which can come in a new silver-gray livery with new decals. In addition, a unique, special graphite wrap combine is available on limited special order. Kalvesta Implement owner Bruce Baldwin, whose business has sold Gleaner combines since 1926, said he was impressed by the new machine. The Gleaner, he said, also is gaining ground. "We have more customers asking questions, asking about our machines," he said. "It's a player in the combine business." Milan, Kan., farmer Ed Larson also was touring the plant Friday, eyeing a new Gleaner combine on his way to the next station. He owns a 2011 model and has one of the original 1923 versions. "I hope to get a new machine, depending on the cost," Larson said. The basic sticker price of the S8 series' three models ranges from $364,000 to $425,000.