Where safety is power: the JDES Power Electronic Systems Lab

See why extreme safety measures matter

As Jim Baumgart navigates his way through a narrow maze of test stands and high-tech equipment in the John Deere Electronic Solutions’ Power Electronic Systems (PES) Lab, he finishes many sentences with the same three words, “done for safety.” The red lights. That lock-out. Those emergency-stop buttons. They all reinforce a culture. And they’re all “done for safety.”

If years of experience as the PES Lab manager in Fargo, North Dakota, have taught Baumgart anything, it’s that high voltage testing makes for a potentially dangerous lab partner. 

Installing lights and signs and locks can alert workers to the constant danger of the electricity running throughout the lab, but since you can’t see it, it can be easy to forget it’s there. Which is why the lab operates under one key rule: “No one works alone — ever,” said Baumgart. “Whoever is in the lab must have a partner.”

As a trained master electrician, Baumgart came to the lab well-versed in high voltage environments. “A team developed a John Deere enterprise safety standard for the lab”, he said. “I took that standard and made a safety program.”

That included the creation of online training tools that follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Fire Protection Association standards.

But online training is just the primer for the personal safety tour Baumgart conducts with each new employee. “I want everyone that comes in the lab to know what the safety expectations are and how best to stay safe in this environment,” he said. “They get to see all the ins-and-outs of the safety protocols. They have to experience it and see it. You can’t learn everything online.”

Lay of the lab

The lab is defined by three phases. In the research and development testing phase, inverter stands and dynamometers verify performance of the inverter and electric motors. In the second phase, whole system or motor footprint testing occurs. And finally, there’s validation — the verification that the design meets the necessary requirements as well as quality standards.

“Everything in the lab is bonded,” said Baumgart. “It’s nearly impossible to tell what still has a current running through it and what doesn’t.” That means every piece of metal in the dyno room is grounded to the earth to prevent hazards.

But, it’s not just about the electricity in the lab, it’s also about the electricity in the product — and what that means for the safety of John Deere customers.

The last line of defense involves numerous tests to ensure outside forces don’t interfere with the electronics of the product. “Testing for immunity is one of our top safety concerns,” said Baumgart. “If your cell phone rings and your tractor turns on — well, we don’t want that.” So, before anything goes out the door, the PES lab’s electromagnetic interference (EMI) chamber measures radio frequency noise.

“We’re the last stop before a product goes into production,” said Baumgart. “Which means we have to keep an extra eye on safety because the next person to use the product will be a customer.”

Beyond Fargo

After a decade under Baumgart’s watch, the Fargo lab has set a standard in safety. Now, other enterprise partners look to the PES lab for safety training.

While JDES’ safety procedures are specific to manufacturing inverters and motor characterization, they’ve helped establish John Deere’s foundation for electrical facilities. This training has rolled out in facilities in Morrisville, North Carolina; Dubuque, Iowa; Coffeyville, Kansas; the Product Engineering Center in Waterloo, Iowa and Moline Technology Innovation Center in Moline, Illinois.

“We only modified the items that didn’t fit the physical parameters of our lab,” said Stacy Worley, senior product engineer at John Deere Coffeyville Works. “We coordinate all of our training with Jim, and frequently seek his input on policies and processes regarding electric drive testing safety.”

And when it comes to safety, Baumgart is happy to provide his input. From creating documents to training first responders on how to respond to an electrocution in the lab, to two-step verification for engineers securing a key to turn on test stands, Baumgart has developed a process. And why does he do it? Simple. “It’s all done for safety,” he said.