The aphorism “necessity is the mother of invention” dates back to the fourth century BC.
The latest proof is a handful of Deere engineers who’ve expanded their search for innovation from making customers more productive to keeping employees safe.
“The current environment has presented some huge challenges, and we saw some opportunities to help keep our fellow employees safe,” said Craig Sutton, manager, Technology Innovation Strategy.
Dr. Eric Johnson, technical leader, Additive Manufacturing, added, “Thanks to the combination of Deere’s investments in 3D printing and the fact that we had the necessary skillsets already in place at our tech centers and factories, a small group of us was able to jump on video calls and figure out how to affix a face shield to a ballcap quickly and inexpensively.”
Deere engineers in the U.S., Germany, and elsewhere began turning the creative energies that help make the company the premier innovator in its industries toward helping keep employees safe, even under unusual circumstances. The flood of proposals prompted engineers to collect their ideas in a spreadsheet, not just to prevent duplication of work, but also to inspire ideas for improvement. The spreadsheet includes a brief description of the innovation, specifications, who’s leading the effort and where, preliminary test results, and current status.
One idea has already been tested on the factory floor and put into production. (The usual test-test-test-and-then-manufacture model is being set aside for expedience.) The idea is a clip that can be affixed to a standard protective ballcap, and three clips are used to hold a protective face shield in place. The shield attaches to the ballcap, which has an inner protective bump-cap insert, a required personal protection item at many Deere factories
“We were hearing face shields are pretty scarce, and this design could be adopted to basically any ballcap,” said Craig Mohler, competency leader. “We’re working to get protection to workers quickly.”
Waterloo Works employees Kurt Bechthold, supervisor – Tooling, Mechanical Engineering, and John Vieth, supervisor, tool design, came up with the design, and Deere is manufacturing the plastic clips in‑house, using its own 3D printers. Even though he was working from home, Bechthold used his own 3D printer to test five increasingly improved iterations of the clip.
“Every John Deere 3D printer, and a lot of John Deere engineers in North America have their own 3D printers, is making these clips around the clock,” said Johnson. With all 3D printers dedicated to the same task, Deere is making about 2,400 clips a day — a batch of 30–45 clips takes about 35 minutes to print — with the goal of completing enough clips to affix protective face shields to 18,000 ballcaps. Other John Deere factory locations are using their 3D printers to produce clips as well. Some clips will be produced using laser cutting and injection molds .
“Without this ingenuity and the get-it-done attitude of our employees, there is no way we would have been able to outfit as many employees as fast as we are,” said David Ottavianelli, director – Labor Relations, Strategic Projects.
The team tested the concept with factory workers in Waterloo and received positive feedback as well as feedback from the Deere Occupational Health and Hygiene team.
Deere plans to share the 3D printing specifications online free of charge, with anyone interested. “Anyone who wants to provide these clips to their own employees or employees in their communities will be able to download the specs and manufacture their own,” said Sutton.
Sutton noted that the design for the ballcap face shields is not intended for a medical environment; it’s for an industrial or commercial workspace.
Elsewhere, John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline, Il, is developing a hand-held device that is small enough to fit in a pocket and that can be used to open doors and push buttons without bringing the user’s hand in direct contact with either.
Other projects include developing clear plastic screens to separate production employees at their work stations. And employees in Waterloo are working on a simple system of adhesive dots that can be placed on the floor to show employees how far apart they should be standing for safe social distancing.
In all, there are more than 20 ideas to help keep employees safe and healthy and, knowing Deere employees’ ingenuity, there are many more on the way.
“We’re trying to support what we can at MTIC [Moline Technology and Innovation Center], but this has definitely been a team effort well beyond Moline,” Sutton said.