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Daily, thousands of people drive past the Case IH Racine manufacturing plant on Highway 11 in Sturtevant and don’t give it a second thought. Unless they work inside the massive facility, or know someone who does, they may not have a clue of how the bright red Magnum tractors made inside have an impact on their lives.

But if you enjoy eating anything made with grains or sugar (or drinking beer, for that matter), the odds are very high it was cultivated, tended and harvested by a tractor that came off the line in Racine County.

“The demand for the products our producers make is not changing,” said Scott Harris, vice president, Case IH Agriculture—North America. Translation: people have to eat.

An output of about 15 units a day may not seem like a blistering pace, but given the scale of the plant itself and the massive size of its products, tractors are coming off the line with amazing speed. Unlike most automotive manufacturing, every tractor produced has been built for a specific buyer. Customers will often visit the plant to watch their unit being built.

One tractor, one buyer

The Racine plant builds the Case IH Magnum Series tractors. Transmissions for the Axial-Flow Combines, Cotton Express Cotton Pickers, as well as axles and valves for Case IH Steiger Series tractors are also manufactured in the Racine plant.

Plant manager Aron Oechsner briefs reporters during CNH Industrial’s “Build a Tractor” media event at the Case IH tractor plant Wednesday, September 26, 2018. (c) Mark Hertzberg for www.racinecountyeye.com

The Highway 11 plant produces wheeled and tracked tractors. With different engines, drive trains, tires, etc. the plant offers over 2 million different possible combinations of tractors. “The customer doesn’t order two of the same, so we don’t build two of the same,” said plant manager Aron Oechsner.

“We have 417 hourly employees and the average age of those employees is 49,” said Oechsner. “They have an average of about 10 years of service. We’re proud of having these people with 10-30 years of service, and those are our senior people out on the shop floor. They help lead us and guide us every day.”

Demand is cyclical for Case IH

Farming is generally a consistent activity, but the demand for agricultural equipment can be cyclical. Company officials said that the ag industry is currently in a replacement phase—producers need to, and can afford to, replace their tractors.
At the moment, the demand for the plant’s tractors remains solid, as does the company’s need to hire new employees.

Tariff fights can be a factor

While sending ripples through some industries, recent talk of trade fights and tariffs on needed raw materials has been on the radar for Case for some time. “Certainly, they affect the cost of raw materials,” said Harris. “We’ve anticipated this because they have been in play for a long time. We started to see an increase in the cost of steel prior (to the tariffs). But this is something we manage routinely.

Lamar Love programs the electronic controls on tractor armrests at the Case IH tractor plant. (c) Mark Hertzberg for www.racinecountyeye.com

“We’ve achieved some efficiencies elsewhere to try to offset it. So, we have not instituted surcharges or anything to that effect. Any time we have a cost increase, there is an impact on profit margins that we are obligated to offset.”

Hiring in Racine

Brian French, vice president human resources CNH Industrial, said the Racine plant is always on the hunt for new employees—both in the plant as well as administrative and support role. He sees the pending arrival of Foxconn as less of an issue than some area employers, who fear the electronics giant will poach current employees.

“Foxconn is a positive we believe,” French said. “We are going to see a lot of trailing spouses who will be looking for work. This is a good place to work. An (employee) can build real-world job skills here.”

Not what most people expect

Glen Jaskulske, left, and Yvonne Berryman installs the hood on a Case Magnum 340 tractor at the Case IH tractor plant. (c) Mark Hertzberg for www.racinecountyeye.com

For anyone who has not been in a manufacturing plant for a few decades, the Racine plant may seem surprising.

It is clean, well lit, and extremely organized in its layout. And contrary to what we may see on television, robots have not taken over at this facility. Men and women still perform tasks that require lots of physical motion. But, they are assisted by all means of computers, as well as lifting and moving devices.

First person

Last week, I was invited to take part in CNH Industrial’s “Build a Tractor” media event at the plant. All kinds of television and print people showed up, but in the end, only two grizzled reporters actually got out on the floor to try their hand at real work. I was one of them.

I rotated through three workstations. At the first, I built front axle assemblies. It was a multi-step process and a computer screen told me each task; it would not let me proceed until I had properly completed the previous step. Electric hoisting equipment helped me move the heavy piece through the steps, but lots of physical labor was still involved. Eight hours of this work would be tiring for most people.

Jorge Mendez, right, shows Racine County Eye reporter Rex Davenport how to operate the machine Davenport will use to put a wheel and tire on a tractor during CNH Industrial’s “Build a Tractor” media event. (c) Mark Hertzberg for www.racinecountyeye.com

My second stop was a no-go, but it was instructive. I was to help install the headliner on a unit that would go inside the cab of one of the Magnum tractors. But a new component—a bracket—was being used. Oct. 1 represents a new model year for these tractors and a point when many updates and improvements are put in place. We were working on unit No. 2 for the new model year, and they didn’t really want a fumbling media guy making a mess of things.

Finally, I got to install a tire on one of the giant machines, the last step before they are driven out the back door. I was instructed on how to use the hoist to inch the tire, which is a lot taller than me, into place on the wheel assembly. It looks a hell of a lot easier than it is. Then I got to go after the lug nuts with a bazooka-sized pneumatic driver. Again, looks easy, but isn’t.

The lesson learned: real hard-working men and women go to work every day at this plant, and they do real tasks. They make things, they take pride in their work. Their products help feed the world.

Behind the wheel

Finally, Racine County Eye reporter Rex Davenport gets behind the wheel of a massive Case IH Magnum tractor.

Finally, they gave us a chance to drive one of the massive Magnum tractors. I got behind the wheel of a massive unit that used tracks, not wheels on the backside. With a constant velocity transmission and a joystick shifter, it felt like part video game, part jet fighter. It could make almost zero-radius turns.

According to Case: “The CVT transmission precisely matches speed to any application to improve productivity.” It automatically selects the most efficient transmission range for the desired speed or load — eliminating the need for manual clutching or shifting.”

Learn more about jobs at Case IH.

Rex Davenport

Rex Davenport is a reporter, editor and editorial project manager with more than 40 years of experience in newspaper, business magazines and other content channels.