With relatively few combine manufacturers supplying the UK, the chance to tour a maker’s factory is rare. Martin Rickatson provides a brief summary of manufacturing and assembly at Case IH’s Axial-Flow facility in Nebraska, USA.
Big machines mean big numbers. And when it comes to combines, few factories are bigger than CNH Industrial’s combine plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, USA, where the primary product line produced is the Case IH Axial-Flow range.
The plant was opened in 1965 and since then its area has tripled in size to 8.6 hectares and it has produced Axial-Flow machines since the introduction of the AFX 8010 model back in 2003. This was following the transfer of production from the original Axial-Flow plant at East Moline, Illinois.
The Grand Island facility is one of CNH Industrial’s ‘Centres of Excellence’, meaning on one site it houses product design, manufacturing and testing.
Activities overseen by the plant’s 650 employees include design, fabrication, welding, painting and assembly, using technology, which includes laser cells, robotic welders, automotive-grade e-coat paint application and wireless testing systems. About 35 per cent of production is exported to 40 countries.
Two combine ranges, spanning six models, are built at the facility and each machine comprises more than 12,000 separate components.
While key components are shipped in from outside suppliers, including gears and shafts, and from other CNH Industrial plants, such as engines from sister firm FPT Industrial in Italy and axles built in Racine, Wisconsin, a good deal of manufacturing is done in-house.
This includes the laser-cutting of steel sheet components and the welding and fabrication of structures from them.
Modern measurement systems mean efficiency of steel sheet use is as high as 75 per cent, with the remainder recycled. Key components are then folded where necessary and constructed using a combination of robot and manual welding.
Primary steel components, including cab structures, are individually corrosion-treated with an alkaline cleaner and then a zirconium metal conditioner.
Steel elements are then primed/undercoated before thermoset acrylic painting is carried out on a line which stretches to 4km.
A total of 95 litres of paint is used per combine, followed by oven baking to 169degC.
Machine construction begins as two separate elements: the chassis, transmission and engine form one unit; while the threshing system forms another; before the two are married together later down the line.
Assembly of the first part begins with engine dressing (pictured), with the addition of ancillary elements, such the radiator pack.
In advance of assembly of the second element, key components, such as the cleaning system sieve housing, are assembled and machined.
The Grand Island factory uses 544 tonnes of steel each week at the height of seasonal production. Components are constructed by individual specialist teams.
Meanwhile, with the main superstructure of the machine is assembled (pictured), welded, washed, treated and painted, it is added to the basic driveline.
This comprises primarily of the axles and key hydrostatic drive components for the combine’s transmission, with the unit then ready to later receive the body of the machine.
The construction process for assembling each Axial-Flow rotor (pictured) from its constituent parts takes about one hour. Once finished, the balanced rotor is then installed into the body of the combine.
During the next stage of the process, major elements of the bodywork, such as the grain tank, are installed onto the combine, which now starts to take on a more familiar shape.
Grand Island builds both the 150 and larger 250 Series Axial-Flow combines, which each have distinct design differences, with grain tank capacities alone spanning 8,800-14,400 litres.
With the cab frame having been fully assembled and ‘dressed’ elsewhere in the plant, the next stage in the process is the installation of the cab onto the rapidly developing machine.
The top half of the combine, chiefly the cab, grain tank and body, then join the base, consisting primarily of the chassis, elevator and cleaning system.
Power, electrical and hydraulic connections are coupled and the unit is essentially ready to run. In addition, parts such as the grain tank lids/extensions are put in place.
The last process at the end of the manufacturing line is the installation of wheel and tyre equipment.
Machines for the North American market will usually leave the factory on the tyre equipment ordered by the customer, although as many in the region fit dual wheels, it will be only the inners which are added at the plant.
Combines destined for other parts of the world, including the UK and the rest of Europe, are often fitted with slave wheels before wheel and tyre equipment is later fitted in the destination country. For machines specified with front tracks, slave wheels are added to move the combine to a separate area for track fitment.
Combines are assembled at the rear of the plant ready for shipping to their destination country on a rail-based system which enables easy movement without having to fire each machine up every time it needs to be shunted forward down the line.
Haulage to port is often by road but also by rail, and it is not uncommon for 50 machines or more to be loaded onto train wagons for movement to port before shipping to the UK and Europe, as well as other parts of North America.