Tractors powered by internal combustion have been around for for just over 120 years now, and for half of that time, they have been built at Basildon, Essex in a factory built by Ford, but now owned and operated by Case New Holland.

This is a strong legacy, and one that Case New Holland and the staff of the facility take great care to preserve, while still looking ahead to see how they can best serve their customers needs as farming evolves.

Just what goes into the tractors passing along the assembly line at Basildon is not really the concern of the factory itself, that is the remit of the company’s design centre in Turin.

Ryan Hopkin, Plant Manager
Ryan Hopkin has been with the company for five years and is still learning something new about tractor production every day

What is Basildon’s job, is to ensure that whatever is specified is built into the machine and that it is put together with the care and attention required to ensure that it remains reliable in the field.

This has become the major concern for Ryan Hopkin, the youthful plant manager who, just like the site itself, came from Ford, although his background is in the automotive field where he started life as an electrician.

Ryan has a great enthusiasm for task of tractor assembly, and is constantly reminding his staff that should a car breakdown then it is inconvenient, but a tractor is a business tool and should it breakdown, then it can be a major factor in the profitability of a farm over the year.

Quality in assembly

He sets this as the guiding principle for the factory and explains that the traceability of parts and assembly protocols is a vital element of the overall system, with the scope of the monitoring and recording of each tractors trip down the line increasing all the time.

The last engine built at Basildon
Over three million engines were built at Basildon, and this was the last to come off the production line.

Putting tractors together has become a highly complex business with the the average repeatability of tractor builds being 1.5 a year, that is to say, on average, it takes three years for two identical tractors to be produced, a far cry from churning out endless copies of Ford 4000s and 5000s.

Blues and reds at Basildon

To add further to the variety, Basildon also produces Case tractors for export, mainly to America where it is a dominant brand, more so than in the UK and Ireland.

Assembly of Case cab
Basildon produces both Case and NH tractors from shared components although the final detail differs

To the question as to whether the only difference between Case and NH models is the colour, vice president at New Holland Europe, Sean Lennon, answered that, although the mechanical components are the same, the operator experience is different as the Case cab.

As already noted, it is a rare occurrence for two NH tractors to be the same – so the question is, in a way, redundant.

Methane power

Another complication recently added to the build schedule is the arrival of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as an alternative fuel.

New Holland has taken a lead role in promoting the use of slurry as an on farm energy source, and so it needs to have the tractors available to run on it.

CNG assembly area at Basildon
The CNG assembly area is kept separate from the main line with restricted access

There is a lot more involved in assembling CNG-powered tractors than just strapping a couple of cylinders in the space left by the diesel tank.

UK government regulations insist that the plumbing is done by suitably qualified personnel, and only those with such training can enter that section of the assembly area.

Looking further forward, there is the prospect on LNG, or methane in liquid form, becoming accepted as an alternative fuel.

Methane powered tractor at Basildon
New Holland has thrown its weight firmly behind methane as an alternative fuel

Despite some earlier optimism from the company, it appears that the challenge of storing a cryogenic liquid next to hot parts of the tractor is taking a little longer to overcome than anticipated.

Whatever the outcome, New Holland will have amassed the experience and expertise to put the ideas into production, a step ahead of those manufacturers who are still at the prototype stage.

Keeping the Basildon track moving

From the start of assembly to its finish, a tractor spends around one and a half days on the production line. There are 2.2km of overhead track, and approximately 160 tractors on the line at any one time.

The cabs arrive at the factory as bare frames and are assembled in a separate line until mated with the appropriate skid unit. All is pre planned and the parts arrive at the assembly stations when needed, no stock of parts is kept on the line.

Basildon production line
With the cabs attatched to the skid units the next stage is attaching the bonnet and then wheels

The body panels arrive as pre-coloured mouldings, but the skid unit still needs a coat of black and this is applied in a new paint shop where a pair of the few robots in the factory apply the one coat paint.

End of lie
At the end of the line, the tractors are towed away for final calibration

Despite the engines, transmissions and axles arriving as complete items the factory still has a stock of 16,000 different parts to be selected from and used to build up each tractor.

Final stage

A major change over the years is that upon completion the tractor is no longer driven off the line, the software needs to be tweaked and the electronics fired up before it can be started, so it is hitched to the back of a tow tractor and pulled to the calibration and test area where the final checks and a test run are undertaken.

Ford 4000 and NH T7
The old and the new. 60 years and five times the power separate the Ford 4000 and NH T7.300

The 60th birthday of the plant is an excuse for celebration and NH are marking the date, with the wrapping of a T7.300 in a psychedelic colour scheme, which will be seen at shows and events throughout the year.

Quite what form tractors will take in another sixty years is the big unknown, but nobody is betting on them all being driverless or that food production will be confined to bubbling vats in vast factories.

Basildon and all other tractor factories have a future yet.