ATLANTA — The green machines of John Deere have taken a new direction.
The business, formally called Deere & Co., is launching a new lawn tractor line using what it terms "spin steer technology" to allow the vehicles to turn on a dime. But as long as it was reconsidering the mechanics, it also wanted to give the vehicles a new look.
"This was a major step aside from what they typically do in form and general appearance," said Bengt Nestell, senior project manager for Henry Dreyfuss Associates of Woodridge, N.J., who led the design of the John Deere SST tractor.
The result is a tractor that makes extensive use of polypropylene from front to back, and also catches the consumer's eye.
A jury of three independent industrial designers noted that the team managed a difficult feat — giving a fresh, new look to something that is seen on suburban lawns every day — and named the SST the winner of the fourth annual Industrial Designers Society of America/Plastics News Design Award. Judging took place during the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division 2001 conference in Atlanta, April 1-3.
The SST was one of 66 new products up for consideration at the event.
Designers were given plenty of freedom in coming up with the shape of the machine, Nestell said. It is similar in operation to a commercial mower, which uses levers to manipulate the rear wheels and make tight turns. But Deere wanted something that would provide consumers with a steering wheel and foot pedals — just like a conventional mower.
"The reason we could do that is that this is not a standard lawn tractor or a garden tractor," he said. "It's a bridge between some of the commercial vehicles and a lawn tractor.
"This gave us the opportunity to do something that was different. We were allowed to explore to a much higher degree."
Gone is the traditional Deere front-leaning forward grille. Instead the hood sweeps back.
The headlights shift from the top of the mower to just above the front wheels, where they can provide a wider sweep of illumination as the tractor makes a sharp turn, Nestell noted.
The front fenders mimic the look of a sports car, while "discreet" crease lines built into the thermoplastic body are intended to give the mower some dimension and shape and avoid a static field of green paint, he said.
Deere and its design team successfully fended off the basic problem of re-creating a standard product seen every day, judges said.
"It makes an emotional plug for the buyer," noted IDSA judge Jeffrey Stout, senior mechanical engineer for Sundberg Ferar of Atlanta.
Beyond the visual aspects, the SST feels right, from the position of the seat to the location of the hand and foot controls, said David C.F. Stoddard, vice president and design director for Merchandising Systems International, a Marietta, Ga., affiliate of Leggett & Platt.
"It's beautifully thought out, from end to end," he said.
What made the design work, though, was the cooperative effort between the Henry Dreyfuss Associates team, Deere's design group, and engineers from molder Bemis Manufacturing Co. Inc. and their toolmakers, Triangle Tool of Milwaukee, Wis., and CDM Tool of Hartford, Wis.
"It was an awesome working relationship," said Barry Goebert, an advanced designer for Deere involved in styling the lawn tractor. "There were several items on this vehicle where there was a real give and take."
For instance, the designers planned a sweeping hood free of logos along the front fascia. But as Bemis engineers worked out how to produce the part, they realized they needed a gate to make the right shape. The optimum spot, Goebert and Nestell noted, was at the center of the hood — exactly where the Dreyfuss group wanted a smooth flowing shape.
"We pushed the engineers, to make sure they weren't just going with old-school thinking," Nestell said. "There was a lot of theoretical discussion."
Once they were satisfied Bemis had explored every possible answer, the designers agreed to place a strategic SST logo there to mask the site.
"The industrial designer did a tremendous job with the look," said Peter Bemis, executive vice president for Sheboygan Falls, Wis.-based Bemis Manufacturing.
The SST has a variety of innovative techniques built into its body, beyond the change in steering systems. Bemis used a proprietary mix of glass and mineral-filled PP to create a structural fender, said Gary Vande Berg, director of engineering for Bemis' injection molding operations.
Bemis also invested in a Milacron triple-barrel, coinjection molding press to produce the steering wheel, which replaces the typical steel core with a structural plastic core. The press uses a two-cavity mold with two stations.
The wheel begins with a coinjection of an unfilled polypropylene core with a blowing agent at the core and the exterior skin of glass-filled PP and unfilled PP.
The cavity then rotates to overmold a polyolefin green-grip detail.
Bemis will manufacture the SST parts in Sheboygan Falls, supplying Deere's operation in Horicon, Wis.
Bemis is seeing additional growth in lawn and garden molding. It recently launched an 80,000-square-foot expansion at its Lenoir, N.C., operation to serve lawn and garden customers there.
"This is not just a metal to plastic conversion," said IDSA judge Steve Meister of Atlanta-based Big Design. "It has incredible substance."