Farmer Iron

Unique Combine Sculpture Under Construction

Interesting program with John Deere makes a direct link between farm equipment and food - with can goods. They call it Can Do.

NOTE: I've updated this blog with a couple of new images from the 11/17 press event. You can see the images at the bottom.

Big equipment rolling through a corn or soybean field isn't always a direct connect to the final food consumer, though it is an important part of production. John Deere wants to make that connection a little more concrete - boy do they ever!

This week, sitting in prime real estate in the John Deere Pavillion in downtown Moline, Ill., is a "canstruction" that includes more than 325,000 cans of food all in the shape of a full-size S-Series combine. The machine, which is just starting to roll off the line this week, is getting some special treatment with this charity offering. They call it the Can Do Project.

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK: This combine is made from can goods. Check out this blog for all the details, then look for more up close images below. It's quite a project.

You see, those cans are going to end up in the River Bend Foodbank in December, after the majestic, record-breaking can-made sculpture gets some display time. While the idea of connecting food to combines is novel, how the heck do you get to a can sculpture? Or a 'canstruction' as the folks involved call it.

"We wanted to connect the farmer with the food," says Richard Williamson, an art director at John Deere and the project manager for the sculpture. "And this way we're doing that."

As part of the project, the architects at RTKL Associates and Deere did connect with River Bend folks to determine the most valuable food items for the food bank. "We didn't want to send over foods that wouldn't get used," Williamson says. John Deere is working with Hy-Vee Foods (which has probably cleaned out a lot of warehouse space with this project) to build the sculpture) and you'll find a wide range of foods when you look at the machine.

Williamson takes a stab at listing what's included in the sculpture, including spinach, olives, refried beans, green beans, chili, peas, corn, kidney beans (dark and red), black bean chili, pumpkin, pie filling, pudding. The list goes on.

In fact, when finished, the donated can goods will be enough to feed 150 families for an entire year. And all those different foods help to keep the coloring right to make the combine look as realistic as possible. The pictures farther down this blog will give you an idea of what I mean.

Devil in the details

Patrick Murphy, from RTKL Associates, out of their Chicago office, was involved in the design and construction planning from the beginning. And believe me, when you hear what they had to think about you'll be surprised.

First, RTKL has been involved in "canstruction" competitions in the past, but Murphy notes that those were usually in the 10,000-can size. "We've made Spam in cans, and a chicken," he notes. "But this is a level of magnitude bigger. And this is in a complex shape."

Murphy and his team got a 3D model of a Deere combine that they plugged into their industry-based design software to "build" the can combine in the computer. They were using specific measurements for cans and their sizes and colors to build the final product.

"We mapped the perimeter of the combine, and worked on the math to fill the void," he explains. "While we used specific cangoods for their label colors to get the outside done, we filled the inside spaces with the foods the foodbank needs to too," Murphy explains. They built that combine layer by layer in the computer before setting out the live plan to get started.

And you don't just stack cans and hope for the best. There's a layer of 1/4-inch plywood between each can level. "Deere found us a place that could print on the plywood and we translated the plan to those sheets before we started," Murphy says. "That was a huge timesaver."

Consider this. The designers had to not only consider can color and size, but they also had to make sure they were using foods the foodbank could use. Now let's add another layer of complexity. Workers would only be able to work within an area that they could reach by hand. And how many workers and how much "person time" would be needed to get the job done in time?

First up, as noted above, the outside was scaled and detailed by can color to get right down to the decal stripes (see pix below). Inside each layer - that you can't see - they filled in with foods the foodbank folks can really use.

Second, the build plan was designed so volunteers would work in a specific size area from start to finish. "Everything would be within reach," Murphy says. "So we had to plan for that."

Third, how many volunteers? Murphy and his team at RTKL figured that a person could do about 10,000 cans in a four-hour shift. They worked 12-hour days, so they worked out they would need a specific number of volunteers and shifts - about 500 volunteers are involved in total.

Finally, they figured out that if each volunteer did their 10,000 cans a shift, they would be feeding a person for a year. "We were able to tell the volunteer at the end of their shift that they had fed a person for a year," says Murphy. "That made this a tangible benefit to the volunteers." With 700 volunteers, that's where the 125 families for a year figure comes from. Pretty simple, and pretty impressive.

By the way, RTKL donated all its time and services for the project - but it's part of their corporate culture to reach out to the community and this program filled the bill.

Breaking a record

In a true, go big or go home approach, John Deere and RTKL are aiming to beat the record for the largest can sculpture ever built. To do that, there are specific rules that the folks at Guinness Book of World Records requires. Says Project Manager Williamson: "There can be no wood showing, so we have to cover everything with food," he notes.

That's how they do it at the Rose Parade (in Pasadena and Portland, Ore.) - no part of the float can go without veggie covering. In this case the veggie covering is still in the can!

A quick Web search shows that the old record is held by Walt Disney Company with a 115,000-can goods sculpture. If the folks at Guinness like what Deere has done, they'll be blowing the doors off the old record with their 325,000-can sculpture. The challenge is there.

Take a look at the photos below that help tell the story. And you can see video of the sculpture online by visiting

You can also learn more about the Can Do program - which is what John Deere calls this effort - in this special audio interview conducted by Jason Vance with John Deere's Barry Nelson, who heads up public relations for the company. Just click on Can Do Project to learn more.

PLANTING SOME CORN: The full-size "construction" of a Deere S Series combine will be "harvesting" corn as workers build the stalks into the snouts of their sculpture.

PLYWOOD BLUEPRINT: Each layer of cans sits on a piece of 1/4-inch plywood cut out specifically for the section of the combine where it will be needed. The team arranged to have the actual can pattern for each layer printed on the plywood too.

COMING AT YOU! This 'snout on' view shows you that this is a full-size "canbine". More than 325,000 cans of food have been used to make this sculpture, but you'll also find a few thousand bags of dried beans and other foods too.

DETAIL ORIENTED: Note that different cans were used to get the right details. The Yellow is refried beans (in the wheels too), the black is black-bean chili, and the silver of the cab - well those cans don't have labels. Note that even the decal stripe is represented in this sculpture.

COVERING IT ALL: To meet the rules of the Guinness Book of World Records people, no bare wood can be showing on the can sculpture. Workers have covered one piece of wood with spaghetti boxes (they're empty - but the food wasn't wasted it is being used in a kitchen).

FROM ABOVE: Got a shot after the project was completed showing all that corn, and how those combine snouts look from up above. Impressive.

LAST CAN: To complete the sculpture, Bob Herring, Mechanicsville, Iowa, placed the last can - a Gold Key special - into the sculpture. Herring had the honor of being the first farmer to take a Gold Key tour for the new John Deere S Series combine.

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