One of the lessons learned during the “industrial awakening” — that period in the 1970s when America suddenly found itself dismally trailing economic powerhouse Japan — was that, to be profitable, manufacturing must be a smooth, flowing, relatively uninterrupted process.
This was a hard lesson to learn for industries that prided themselves on, above all, giving customers exactly what they want — and then some.
Nowhere was that attitude more prevalent than in the manufacture of construction equipment, where the number of specialized products is surpassed only by the options to further specialize those products.
Companies were being forced to re-think their approach to the manufacturing process. For the most part, those that adapted, succeeded; those that didn’t often became footnotes in history.
Nothing Runs Like …
For John Deere, which already boasted a proud 100-plus year lineage, adapting simply meant getting creative: the company would still give its customers what they wanted, but it would do so only after the initial manufacturing phase was complete.
In that scenario, equipment modifications, mounting of attachments, and the like, were made by Deere’s dealer force rather than at the plant.
While effective in streamlining manufacturing, this sometimes taxed both the capabilities and the bottom line of some dealers.
In 1997, JRB Co., manufacturer of quick-couplers and attachments, and already a primary supplier to Deere, resolved those issues for Deere by establishing centers at which modifications to just-off-the-line equipment could be done.
Called Custom Works sites, the company operates facilities in Davenport, IA, Dubuque, IA, and Chattanooga, TN — and will soon add a fourth —working out of structures located adjacent to main manufacturing plants.
At each site, JRB technical staff are solely dedicated to making manufacturer-approved modifications: changes ranging from something as minor as a decal application to installation of a snow blade and beyond.
“This was an undertaking that, while unproven at first, has enjoyed tremendous success and has really benefited all parties involved,” said Ray McCarthy, manager of JRB’s Iowa Custom Works. “In essence, we are an installer of manufacturer-approved attachments and modifications. Here, it is John Deere, but the overall concept has proven so popular that we’ve expanded to additional areas providing support for other companies as well.
“For each manufacturer, that means a much more streamlined manufacturing process, one that is not affected by deviations from the product rolling off the line at the time. For us, it means an opportunity to build our own business as well as that of our fellow Paladin companies while, at the same time, providing a service to some of our largest customers for JRB products. And the customer, in turn, gets the custom-manufactured product he or she demands.”
Range of Services
While the description of JRB as an attachment installer is fitting, McCarthy added that the full picture of Custom Works shows a much broader involvement.
“There’s no denying that attachment installations comprise the bulk of what we do at each of our Custom Works plants,” he said. “In fact, the list of attachments we mount is quite extensive, ranging from sweeper installations to mounting of JRB Couplers, thumbs, rippers, brush rakes, and the like. However, we’ve grown that offering dramatically as the program has matured, and today we offer additional products and services, again, all manufacturer-approved and all designed to enhance product performance.”
By way of illustration, McCarthy cited the installation of auto-lube systems manufactured by two of the biggest names in that market: Lincoln and Vogel.
“Auto lube systems have really grown in popularity over the last 10 years or so, not coincidentally, at almost the same rate as the growth in the rental market,” he said.
“And it’s easy to see the correlation between the two. For example, a wheel loader has 17 grease points, and a rental company sends these out with the hope that a regular lubrication routine will be maintained. An auto-lube system removes all the guesswork, resulting in better equipment performance, less downtime and longer unit rental life. We’ve worked hard to establish alliances with companies like Lincoln and Vogel, not just for our work with Deere but for our own products as well.”
Other services JRB Custom Works provides include installation of LoJack security systems to enhance equipment recovery in the event of theft; Multi-Seal Tire Sealant, which self-seals onsite tire punctures; and Pre-Delivery Inspections, or PDIs.
“Performing PDIs — which ensure that a machine is totally prepped and ready for use when it hits the customer’s yard — is another one of those services which has proven extremely valuable to Deere,” said McCarthy. “Because so much of Deere’s rental and government sales are direct, there is no dealer involvement, the point at which a PDI is usually done. So we now provide that service and, again, it has proven a good move for everyone.”
A Milestone Nears
If, as they say, the numbers don’t lie, then JRB’s numbers are telling an impressive story indeed.
With less than a decade of experience under their collective belts, the company’s three Custom Works facilities are nearing the time when the 20,000th machine will be slated for work. It is a milestone that, as it draws near, impresses even McCarthy.
“I had no doubt that Custom Works would succeed.” he said. “It was a good fit from the start and has continued to be so. What surprises me is the volume of iron and the amount of work that we’ve seen come through here these last eight years.
“Our tracking is done in both units [the number of pieces of equipment] and jobs [the number of modifications done to a piece of equipment]. In 2004 alone, we did better than 15,500 jobs through all three plants and we are on pace to easily surpass that number. That speaks volumes for the dedication and expertise our technicians and staff bring to the job, as well as for the commitment the major manufacturers have made to the concept of JRB’s Custom Works plants.”
As mentioned earlier, a new Custom Works facility is slated to begin operations in early 2006 and McCarthy and others at JRB are confident that it will not be the last.
“Each of our first two locations were obviously established to support a specific Deere product offering,” said McCarthy. “Our Davenport location supports Deere’s products manufactured in that facility — articulating dumps, motor graders, log skidders, four-wheel drive loaders and compact excavators. The Dubuque site supports Deere’s skid steer line, as well as its backhoes, utility crawlers and construction crawler/dozers.
“Recognizing the value Custom Works’ approach could provide, Komatsu America International also entered into a relationship with JRB, resulting in the establishment of Custom Works’ Chattanooga, TN location in support of Komatsu’s Chattanooga Manufacturing Operation. Since then, that site has evolved even further to support additional OEMs such as Case-New Holland, Hitachi, Caterpillar, etc.
“The new facility — and others like it which we see as logical extensions of this concept — will provide the same breadth of service as the other facilities, again in support of additional OEMs. In light of what we see as inevitable growth, I can’t help but think that the 20,000th unit milestone will soon be a distant memory.”