Modern John Deere machines are dizzyingly-complex marvels of engineering.
There are self-driving tractors. Satellite-guided planters that seed soil with sub-inch accuracy. Onboard computers that remotely alert operators and service technicians to problems before they start.
All of this groundbreaking technology, however, doesn’t mean much unless a farmer’s mobile office – the cab – is a comfortable, carefully crafted, and thoughtfully-designed workspace.
That’s where Janelle Haines comes in.
“You know why love my job?” she asks, with a smile. “It’s knowing, at the end of the day, that I’ve helped make somebody’s life a little better.”
Merriam-Webster defines ergonomics as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.”
Haines, who is a contracted worker at John Deere, serves as an operator station human factors engineer, and she prefers a simpler definition.
“To me, ergonomics is about making our tractor and combine cabs safer, more user-friendly, and more comfortable,” she said. “During spring planting and fall harvest, our customers are behind the wheel for the majority of their day, and we want them to enjoy their time at work.”
Sounds easy enough. In reality, though, designing a cab that suits every farmer can be quite challenging.
“It’s difficult sometimes, but at the end of the day, we’re responsible for creating an exceptional working environment for folks of all shapes and sizes,” Haines explained. “So, when I’m helping design a cab, I’m searching for a great biomechanical fit. That means we’re looking at different body positions, where the joints are relative to specific actions, and whether controls are within reach. We use everything from 3D mannequins to virtual reality software to ensure bodies can function efficiently and effectively.”
Passion, Pride, and Purpose
Spend a few minutes with Haines and you’ll notice how passionate she is about improving the lives of farmers from Utah to Uzbekistan.
“The best feeling after a long day at work is knowing I helped design a cab that’ll enable a farmer to live his best life,” she said. “Maybe there’s a customer out there who has been living with severe back pain for 15 years, but he gets up every morning, grits his teeth, and gets the job done anyway.”
“I’m working for him. I’m working to find new ways to arrange his cab to alleviate his symptoms. If I can do that, I’m not only making him a little happier, but I’m making his family a little happier. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
And oftentimes the smallest enhancements have the biggest impacts.
“Interestingly enough, my cousin farms and he runs John Deere tractors and equipment,” Haines said. “One day, he asked me if I had anything to do with the design of the foot pegs in the cab. He said, ‘did you help with those? Because they’re amazing! They make the ride so much better.’ We’re talking about tiny foot pegs on the steering column. That shows how big of a difference the little things make in the lives of our customers.”
Colleagues say Haines’ unrelenting focus on comfort, safety, and performance is making a difference both in the field and at the dealership.
“Janelle is always listening to customers and internal experts who challenge our assumptions about what’s important to them on the farm or job site,” said Jonathan Drum, staff user experience researcher. “She’s very good at taking new information from customers and using it to make a better product.
“Her work in human modeling and virtual reality visibility studies helps us understand how our cabs will fit operators and how good an operator’s visibility will be while working. And since she helps us do those evaluations early in design, it increases the chances that we will be able to go to production with cabs that have the best operator fit and best visibility in the market. We’re lucky to have her on our team.”
The Organic Chemistry Detour
Haines studied engineering at the University of Iowa but was set on attending medical school after graduation. That all changed during her freshman year.
One morning, during an organic chemistry class – which she needed to pass in order to become a doctor – she realized that a career in medicine wasn’t for her. But biomechanics, or the study of the human body, was.
A decade or so later, Haines is improving lives through her work and encouraging young people to take a look at STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.
“There are a growing number of females in engineering at John Deere,” said Haines. “Girls in high school and college see us and they realize there’s a place for them, and their voices will be heard when it comes to building brighter futures for those linked to the land.”
Outside of work, Haines spends as much time as she can with her husband and their two-year old daughter. She also has interests that aren’t known to many.
“I secretly love music and theater,” she said. “In fact, through my college years and even a little bit into my working years, I did a lot of musical theater productions, and then in my time at Iowa, I got to sing the national anthem at sporting events including the Olympic trials for wrestling. Just some fun tidbits that I keep hidden.”
Much more apparent is Haines’ devotion to those who’ll likely never meet her, or know that she’s responsible for designing their safe, comfortably, and ergonomically efficient cab. And that’s just fine with her.
“A little piece of everybody’s heart and soul who works here goes into these machines, and I think that’s really apparent to our customers when they get them,” Haines said. “We’re not looking for recognition. We’re just trying to find the best solutions for everyone who touches our products.”