John Deere has fired up its $150 million baby.

It is a complete modernization of the John Deere Foundry on Westfield Avenue.

Three years in the making, it is the latest in more than $1 billion in investments Deere has made over the past decade in its Waterloo operations — the company's largest manufacturing complex in the world.

"We believe having a foundry provides us a competitive edge," said Josh Wittenburg, manager of foundry operations in Waterloo.

The project gives Deere "the ability to produce larger castings to match the growth in the size of our tractors," said Thad Nevitt, factory manager of the Deere Waterloo Works. The company's industry-leading large row-crop tractors are manufactured in Waterloo.

But it isn't just the plant itself that provides the edge.

"A lot of people can build a foundry, but you can't replicate the people," Wittenburg said. "The investment here is about the people providing that distinctive advantage for us."

The same is true with Deere's investment in its operations across Waterloo, Nevitt said — in product development, capacity and manufacturing modernization and improvements — and its investment in the community.

It's about the people — cultivating, attracting and retaining a skilled work force to run Deere's world-class Waterloo operations, Nevitt said. Total employment at Deere's Waterloo operations remains at 6,000 people — the highest in a quarter century and steady over the past two years.

Deere is a partner in work force development incentives throughout the education system — from the Univ. of Northern Iowa and Hawkeye Community College down to the grade schools — and quality of life initiatives. Those range from the John Deere tractor museum, anticipated to open this year near Cedar Valley TechWorks, to the Cedar Valley SportsPlex downtown.

"We are very pleased with the development of the Cedar Valley," Nevitt said. "These improvements are critical to our business as we compete to attract and retain the best employees. Just like the other businesses in the area, our competitive advantage is our employees."

Community leaders have taken to heart a challenge by former Waterloo operations general manager Mike Triplett nearly 15 years ago, on the cusp of Deere's $1 billion investment, to improve the community to justify that investment and to help Deere maintain its work force.

"The leaders in the community are delivering on Mike’s challenge by really improving the quality of life here in the Cedar Valley," Nevitt said.

The foundry modernization — believed to be Deere's largest investment in the facility since it was built more than 40 years ago — is Deere's latest vote of confidence in the Cedar Valley. It was aided by tax incentives approved by the Iowa Department of Economic Development in 2010 when the project was announced.

It includes a new high-tech mold line, integrated cooling system and core processes. The existing 40-year-old mold lines, carefully maintained over the years, also remain integral parts of the operation.

As the size of Deere tractors increased over the years, so has the size of the castings required.

The project "allows us to design tractors that provide us with a competitive advantage with the use of very large and complex castings with tight tolerances," Nevitt said.

The Waterloo foundry is, in essence, the forge furnace for a major portion of the entire company's manufacturing operation.

"We do not sell castings to other companies today, and that direction doesn’t change with this project," Nevitt said. "Our full casting capacity is consumed by our tractor business and products produced at other Deere factories" around the world.

Part and parcel of that modernization is continually improving working conditions for employees.

"A big part of everything we invest in is about our employees and providing a better environment to work in," bucking the stereotypical perception of a foundry environment, Wittenburg said. "We are the safest foundry in the industry here. and we have a great place for our employees to work.

"We remove them from the hazards and work them smarter, not harder" Wittenburg said, through automation and improved technology. "And that helps us attract employees to the foundry and retain them here. There are employees who have been here a long time, and they love it here and have no desire to leave. We continue to invest in making it a safe place, a better place to work."

In addition to the foundry improvements, Nevitt said, "Over the past six years we’ve significantly increased the capacity of our tractor business. There was a lot of work completed in 2013 related to these projects as we installed many of the final pieces. Several hundred equipment moves and installations were completed in 2013 alone."

All those improvements will be seen in products coming off the line.

"Starting late in last year and continuing throughout 2014, we will produce and ship new engines and new models for each of our tractor product lines," Nevitt said, responding to customer demand and new air emissions requirements of various major markets.

"Designing and testing these new products, plus preparing to manufacture them, has been a massive effort for our employees and suppliers," Nevitt said.

While a new plant in Montenegro, Brazil, will produce "8R" model tractors for that market, "Waterloo will still continue to manufacture 8R tractors for the other markets around the world," Nevitt said. "Additionally, we also will continue to supply many major components for the tractors assembled in Brazil, so our local Waterloo factories will benefit from the expected growth."

Deere corporate officials have consistently cited the company's Waterloo-made large tractors as a major factor in the company's success, having just notched a fourth consecutive year of record earnings. That translates into jobs in Waterloo.

"The biggest factor impacting our employment levels recently has been the worldwide growth of our engine and tractors businesses," Nevitt said. "As long as we continue to focus on being the best choice for our customers, manufacturing in Waterloo has a very bright future."

Within the Cedar Valley community, "There is still plenty of work to do," despite recent accomplishments, Nevitt said. "We need to maintain the momentum so we can move further ahead in the competition for talent."

That includes improving education at all levels through STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives; more entertainment and amenity choices; and continuing to promote ethnic and racial diversity and inclusion of all segments of the community.

Deere and its work force are an intrinsic part of the community's quality of life, Nevitt indicated.

Those contributions include some 7,300 hours of volunteer service and continued United Way support in cooperation with United Auto Workers Local 838.

Union sees positives

UAW Local 838 President Paul Jungen II said the local is pleased about the foundry improvements and proud of its United Way contributions.

"We are excited about the additions to the foundry," Jungen said. "That should hopefully bring a lot more work back into the foundry. We'll melt a lot of iron and bring a lot of castings and work back into Waterloo.

"If you're pouring it in Waterloo, you're cleaning and machining it here in Waterloo," Jungen said. "And that foundry (work) could reach far beyond the foundry. People should be pleased about that money going into Waterloo."

Additionally, Jungen said, "We're very proud of the United Way efforts. The United Way counts on it. Deere and the UAW can be proud of what we do for the United Way."