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issue: March 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

Engineering: Riding Tractors
New Tractors on the Turf

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Brooks Stevens Design had one goal when designing John Deere's Project Lightning: to make the riding tractors as ergonomically pleasing to customers as possible.

This John Deere 2002 Sabre tractor is part of its Project Lightning Line. The design for the tractors was a critical area, according to Rich Walters of Brooks Stevens. "We were careful to create distinctive looks that were fresh and contemporary, yet appropriate in the minds of the customers," he says.

It goes without saying that, in business, customer satisfaction is very important. Knowing this, Brooks Stevens Design had one goal when designing John Deere's Project Lightning: to make the riding tractors as ergonomically pleasing to customers as possible.

"We aimed at making the tractors as comfortable, safe, and easy to operate as we could," says Rich Walters, a senior designer at Brooks Stevens Design. "Because this tractor competes in the mass market, we wanted its operation to be especially intuitive and friendly."

Brooks Stevens, a multi-disciplinary product development firm, worked with John Deere on Project Lightning, developing Deere's 2002 line of Sabre and Scotts tractors. Brooks Stevens started working on the project in the fall of 1999 to get concept feedback from focus groups.

Project Lightning was the first time the two companies had worked together, aside from some previous work through suppliers. John Deere, who had decided to implement processes used in the auto industry, set the direction of Project Lightning. "The goal was to create several families of tractors that could all be produced on the same assembly line at a high speed and [large] volumes," says Mr. Walters.

Among the many tasks that needed to be performed in the project, Mr. Walters says that Brooks Stevens was responsible for designing the exterior parts of both of the tractor models and inventing and developing value-added features. Gary Hohnl, a senior engineer for John Deere, says that other tasks the Wisconsin-based design firm had to perform included surfacing, prototyping, supplier selection, and marketing.

He was very pleased with the results. "Deere challenged Brooks Stevens with aggressive schedules and a wide range of tasks," Mr. Hohnl explains. "We could count on Brooks Stevens to deliver on time, with quality output that matched our expectations."

A particular challenge for Brooks Stevens Design throughout the project was creating tractors with appeal and added value, but without adding cost. Mr. Walters credits the upfront process and assembly evaluation, which helped Brooks Stevens discover most of the manufacturing parameters they had needed to work around. It was in this process that John Deere's potential suppliers came in for brainstorming and technology-sharing sessions.

"The engineering and manufacturing team made sure we understood the assembly requirements of their newly planned facility," Mr. Walters explains. "Once we had early conceptual 3D data, the steel and plastic suppliers would analyze every square centimeter, looking for potential manufacturing challenges and potential savings," he says.

"On one occasion, after evaluating part cost, tooling costs, and styling challenges, it was decided that glass-filled propylene parts would replace steel parts," Mr. Walters notes. Value was also added in some situations, Mr. Walters says, by finding the best solutions in "the simplest designs."

One example of value added through simplicity was found in the fuel tank window on the tractors, which Mr. Walters says, "did not involve extra parts, yet provided a great convenience item on the tractor."

"The window is simply a hole in the fender that the clear tank protrudes through," says Mr. Walters. "The user can see the fuel level through the tank, and there is no question of how much fuel is left."

One area of improvement that Brooks Stevens worked on involved the seats for the tractors. "Early on, we evaluated seats and discovered that the current seats were not providing adequate comfort," says Mr. Walters. To improve upon this shortcoming, Brooks Stevens Design developed seats that had a taller back for the rider and as much foam in the cushion as they could afford. The seat was also designed to be adjustable while sitting. "This is something few manufacturers, if any, have accomplished," says Mr. Walters.

Other ergonomic enhancements for the tractors included the arrangement of the controls for the throttle, cruise, parking brake, and blade engagement, placing them within reach of the steering wheel and within eyesight. Color-coding, Mr. Walters says, was also added to make the controls more intuitive.

During the project, customer research was conducted to determine what improvements could be made to the tractor design. "We participated in several focus group sessions that uncovered wants and needs in several areas," Mr. Walters says. "The focus groups pointed out several items people have to deal with throughout the life span of their tractors."

But the collected data did not come from focus groups alone. "Some of the problems were discovered by the team's personal experiences," says Mr. Walters. "We drew up ideas and then solicited feedback during the focus groups."

One feature that was well received in the focus group research was a service reminder system created by the John Deere and Brooks Stevens team. The system encourages maintenance of the tractor's engine and cutting deck. "The idea is to create a better customer experience and increase the product's life span," Mr. Walters explains. He adds that this is the first lawn tractor to include such a system. "Traditional hour meters used on lawn equipment do not communicate relevant information and are ignored by the consumer along with the misplaced owners manuals and maintenance schedules," says Mr. Walters.

The service reminder system isn't the only "first" found on the new tractors. Brooks Stevens also designed a cargo mount system, reportedly making it the only tractor with four mounting points. The points allow the owner to connect accessories and other items such as lights, collection systems and bins to the system. "Our thinking was, 'Why own a tractor without the potential to add things to it?'" says Mr. Walters.

The lift height memory system was another item innovation Brooks Stevens added to the tractor. "We recognized that the mower deck doesn't always stay where you put it," says Mr. Walters. "It might need to be adjusted during mowing, or it might inadvertently be adjusted by the kids when it is parked in the garage."

The design firm was also aware that solving this problem would make the tractors more appealing. "Using a consistent height setting is important for an even lawn," says Mr. Walters. "We knew if we addressed this issue, the buyer would recognize this as a user-friendly feature that would contribute to the usability of the tractor."

The company looked at several designs for the lift system, but ultimately decided on a lever that would be lined up with a sliding marker. "This feature only added one part that costs only pennies," says Mr. Walters. "Therefore, it adds value for very little cost."

Another innovation that Brooks Stevens helped to integrate was a two-pedal, foot-operated forward and reverse motion control for the tractors, which are said to be the firsts in the market to have a cruise control incorporated into its system. "The pedals are easily toggled between, allowing the user to keep both hands on the wheel where they should be," says Mr. Walters. "The forward speed can be locked in by a simple lifting of a knob on the dash, just inches away from the rim of the steering wheel."

With the project now completed, the collaboration seems to have paid off, judging from the reaction of both companies. "John Deere was very satisfied by the relationship," says Mr. Hohnl. Adds Mr. Walters of Brooks Stevens, "Project Lightning has lead to several other projects. They continue to consult with us."


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