Every time a delicious kernel of corn passes your lips or you crunch into a slice of crusty, freshly-baked bread, you can thank a farmer. According to the US Department of Agriculture, farming and food-related industries contributed about $1.3 trillion to America’s gross domestic product in 2021.
It’s not a stretch to say that agriculture is critical to our lives, as is the machinery that prepares the land, plants and fertilizes the seed, precisely pulls the weeds, and harvests it all. From its inception in 1837, John Deere started by manufacturing a steel plow and has evolved into a modern company producing highly technical equipment. But beyond making farming vehicles like combines and tractors, the Illinois-based company also manufactures heavy construction and forestry machines such as motor graders, dump trucks, and skidders.
[Related: The metallic guts of GE’s massive jet engines, in photos]
Here’s an inside look at this colossal machinery and the people who put it all together in the John Deere Davenport Works factory in Davenport, Iowa.
Seats are significantly better than they were in the past. Some include heaters, shock absorption, and other niceties, allowing people to work for longer periods of time in comfort. Here, a workstation lift table adjusts to various heights thanks to the scissor lift covered in yellow and black accordion safety vinyl; that way, different-sized people can work on the seat, which is important for reducing fatigue on the factory floor. Christopher Payne
On the motor grader line, assemblers like Annette Diericks use a hoist to connect a transmission to an engine. Once the two parts are connected securely, the set is wheeled to the main assembly line to be installed into the engine frame. Lifting these heavy implements would be a Herculean task without the tools to assist human workers. With the powerful engine and transmission in place, a finished motor grader can flatten out large surfaces very quickly to build or maintain roads. Christopher Payne
This giant circle of metal looks like a gear in a watch that Godzilla might wear if he were inclined to tell time. In reality, it’s an important set of mechanical parts for a John Deere motor grader—it attaches the rotating parts of the equipment to the frame. In the upper left corner, a specialized tool ensures that the right amount of torque is applied when an operator is assembling the pieces. Christopher Payne
Black hoses snake down toward the rear axle of a motor grader main frame. During this installation process, assembler Shannon Adamson relies on computer-based smart tools to make sure she’s using the right amount of force and configuring the parts correctly so it doesn’t become a veritable snake pit. Christopher Payne
This unfinished rig may look like it belongs in a Transformers film, but it’s actually part of what will become an articulated dump truck. Before it arrives at this point on the assembly line, the yellow frame is fitted with just the engine, transmission, and the hydraulic fluid tank. Here, workers use a special lifting device to hoist the cab onto the mounting posts. Its cooling package is also installed at this time; it ensures the engine can keep running smoothly even in the dusty environments in which it operates. Christopher Payne
In a forest, loggers use skidders like this green machine for pulling cut trees out of the woods. In its final assembly phase, seen above, the skidder is tilted in place to give operators the opportunity to perform additional work beneath the cab. Then it’s righted and positioned for filling with fluids like oil, coolant, and fuel prior to being started for the first time. Christopher Payne
[Related: An exclusive look inside where nuclear subs are born]
Imagine how many scoops of ice cream a 3,000-gallon metal bin could hold. But this articulated dump truck bucket is destined for more industrial tasks; it and the vehicle it will be attached to are designed for hauling over much rougher terrain than where an ice cream truck would venture. A robotic system ensures efficiency and consistency on the welds it needs; two robotic arms can work together to weld continuously for six hours. Overall, there are 55 robotic systems used in weld and paint processes throughout the Davenport, Iowa factory, producing highly consistent work and avoiding the need for humans to do tasks that would lead to serious physical fatigue. Christopher Payne
Bins like the one being welded in the previous image eventually get a yellow paint job and become part of a truck. Above, a John Deere 310 P-Tier articulated dump truck can handle a payload of 62,005 pounds, and a larger model, the 410 P-Tier, is capable of handling another 20,000 pounds with a few more to spare. These vehicles have features similar to passenger cars, like onboard diagnostics, plus specialty engineering such as onboard payload weighing and pressurized cabs. At the end of the assembly line, hydraulic hoses are connected and fluids are filled. Then the truck’s bin is raised for the first time. Christopher Payne
Assembler Mike Shaw prepares to install a giant yellow bucket to the front end of a wheel loader in a process called “pinning the bucket.” Shaw is attaching a set of heavy chains, and the satchel hugging his right hip is a wireless remote control that allows him to stand back and stay safe during the operation. This bucket, destined for a 744L Wheel Loader, has a capacity of five cubic yards and its operating weight (including fuel and the operator inside) starts at nearly 56,000 pounds. That’s heavier than a regional jet! Christopher Payne
Before the bucket of a 944K Wheel Loader is enrobed in its usual bright yellow paint, sheet and plate steel fabricators like Devon Stahmer install teeth fierce enough to crush rock in a quarry. At about 120,000 pounds, the wheel loader is the largest piece of equipment John Deere manufactures; it weighs about as much as 26 Toyota Tacomas. The bucket holds 2,000 gallons—the equivalent of eight average-size hot tubs. Its main job is to grab huge chunks of aggregate rock and lift it into a truck for transport. Christopher Payne
A wheel loader (without its front bucket) is parked at a test stand, where each John Deere machine is checked at the midpoint and final inspection. Every unit is tested strenuously and every component is connected to a diagnostic tool to check for any unforeseen problems before it rolls off the line. An operator runs through different parameters, cycling different aspects of the test and functionality of the machine to ensure everything is installed correctly and it’s ready to continue its production journey. Notice the lights underneath the machine, which illuminate the testing process. Someday, this wheel loader will lift and move rock, dirt, manure, or feed. That beats using a shovel. Christopher Payne
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that the equipment made at the Davenport, Iowa facility is for construction, not farming. Additionally, a dump truck originally identified at a 410 P-Tier has been updated to be correctly described as a 310 P-Tier.