IT'S NOT every day you're asked to go deep into John Deere's development labs. So when the company invited us to visit its Product Engineering Center (PEC), I jumped at the offer.

For only the second time in the lab's 27-year history, non-John Deere employees were invited there to view how its tractors are engineered and designed in the Waterloo, IA, facility. We journalists were asked to leave our cameras behind to prevent us from taking pictures of prototypes.

This tour was tied in with Deere's launch of new products for 2007 and included a firsthand look at the new 6030 and 7030 series tractors and new automated steering systems, and a chance to test-drive the new machines.

Virtual reality lab

John Deere's PEC is the company's largest engineering facility in the world. It is where all of Deere's high-horsepower tractors are designed and tested. Product engineers first design tractors on a computer using computer-aided design (CAD) software. They then take their designs to a virtual reality lab, where they use high-end graphics cards used in the gaming industry to create 3-D representations of tractors.

With virtual reality technology, engineers can get a feel for their designs before building a physical prototype. They can assess such elements as visibility, styling, airflow and structure so they can correct any problems before the company spends money on production.

Mike Ryken, the virtual reality lab's senior engineer, set up the room for a styling review of the 8020 tractor to show us how the technology works. He instructed us to put on 3-D glasses as he projected the design on a flexible screen that folded to form a four-sided cube.

“When we project images on screen, we use what is called ‘visual stereo,’” Ryken says. He explains how multiple personal computers work together to generate a left- and right-eye image. The 3-D glasses combine the two images to create the illusion of depth on a flat screen.

A motion-tracking chip on the frame of the glasses makes the whole design interactive. “This black box over my head emits a magnetic hemisphere down into this space, and the white sensors on the floor know their position within that magnetic hemisphere,” Ryken continues. “So as you move around with these motion trackers, the computer updates the image for your position orientation.”

I was able to step right through the chassis of a 8020 series tractor. The image changed according to my position so that I could look inside the engine and into the drivetrain. A joystick allowed me to jump to different views.

200 test cells

Once a design is approved in its “virtual” state, a prototype is built and then tested in PEC's 200 test cells. Engineers measure everything from cab noise to hydraulic pressure in these cells, which include a full-vehicle cold room, sound room and wind tunnel designed to simulate actual field conditions. Tests are accelerated so that years of field use can be reduced to a matter of weeks in the lab.

We had time to view only one test, which was called the Six-Post Accelerated Design Verification cell. The tractor was placed on a test stand and lead blankets put over the fenders to act as mud buildup. The tractor was then shaken to simulate the vibration that takes place in the field.

“This is not a structure test for frame problems,” says Eileen Paul, staff engineer. “It is testing parts that are light and flexible, such as hoods, fenders, exhausts or parts in the cab interior.” Engineers measure loosening and wear of these parts and compare the measurements to wear averages. They make necessary revisions until the tractor meets its performance criteria. Deere is considering putting a robot in the cab in the future to simulate actual activities so more performance features can be measured.

7030 and 6030 series test drive

Our John Deere guides wrapped up our tour by giving us a preview of the tractors and other machines new for 2007. I spent most of my time driving the new 7030 and 6030 series tractors. These series were next in line, after the 8030 introduced last year, to be brought up to Tier 3 emission standards. They offer many of the same technologies that are in the 8030 series but in a lower horsepower range.

The 7030 series large-frame tractors are powered by a new 6.8-liter PowerTech Plus engine with a four-valve/cyl. head and range from 140 to 180 PTO hp. The 6030 premium series utility tractors come in two engine packages, ranging from 75 to 95 hp: an economy-priced PowerTech E and a four-valve PowerTech Plus that has a faster torque rise and better fuel efficiency.

Like the 8030 series, the two new series feature a Variable Geometry Turbocharger (VGT) and Cooled Exhaust Gas Recirculation (CEGR) in the engine. “Those two elements together in conjunction with a four-valve head provide us much better fuel efficiency,” explains John Gordon, manager of engine technology.

An option called Intelligent Power Management, available on both series, provides up to 30 hp more on demand so the driver doesn't have to shift down or reduce ground speed when driving through tough conditions or on hilly ground.

Both series have three transmission options: the PowrQuad Plus with 16 forward and 16 reverse speeds and a 19-mph transport speed; AutoQuad Plus with 24 forward and 24 reverse speeds and a 25-mph transport speed; and the Infinitely Variable Transmission with infinite speeds and up to a 25-mph transport speed. Base machine list price for the 7030 series is $91,161 to $108,955. Base machine list price for the 6030 series is $60,393 to $66,017.

Tractor control systems

John Deere also demonstrated a new automated system called intelligent Total Equipment Control (iTEC) Pro for use on 8030 series tractors equipped with AutoTrac assisted steering. Deere claims it is the first system that takes over steering not only down the field but also on the headlands without operator intervention. The operator programs the system to slow down the tractor, raise the implement and control the PTO and other functions as the tractor is making each headland turn.

A second new steering system is iGuide, which automatically compensates for implement slippage when the tractor is on hillsides or contour fields. It is compatible with all John Deere vehicles equipped with AutoTrac and GreenStar 2 except 9000 series tractors and track tractors.

All of these products will be available for limited release in the spring of 2007. For more information, contact your local John Deere dealer or visit www.JohnDeere.com/Ag.