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Sulky: useful innovations

What a difference between the first seeders our blacksmith ancestors dragged across 7 rows and today's machines equipped with advanced technology!

Thanks to the independent Breton family business Sulky, the "made in Châteaubourg" brand is synonymous with quality throughout the world.

1936: Fabien Burel, a smith from Brittany, develops a new seed drill for his farmer friends. Dragged by a horse, the new fast and light machine resembles a sulky, which is how the company got its name.

2013: led by Fabien's grandson, Julien, Sulky is the leading manufacturer of sowing and fertilizing machines in France, and one of the top 5 in Europe. Sulky made its specialization an asset, which has allowed it to always imagine more and better innovations. "Today, we not only produce simple seeders, but also polyvalent tools that work the soil, fertilizing and seeding at the same time," says Gilbert Jouan, Managing Director in charge of innovation and technology. "Agriculture has changed scale: there are fewer farmers, and by extension, farms have grown larger. When you consider that there are only twenty ideal sowing days in a year, you can start to realize the magnitude of the challenges."

Besides, farmers are also called on to produce more, for a growing population, and better, taking care to protect the environment and conserve natural resources.




Specialization, a competitive edge

For over 77 years, Sulky has designed, manufactured, and marketed seed and fertilizer drills. All the energy and resources of the company are focused toward one goal: to help farmers improve cultivation and fertilization techniques.

In 1987, Société Nouvelle Roger, specializing in large seeds, merged with Sulky. In 2001, Sulky expanded its product range by acquiring SIRTEC, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment which manufactures large-scale bulk spreaders.

The manufacturer strengthened its specialization in early 2013by repositioning the Sulky brand onconventional seeding techniques and precision agriculture, and by creating a new division, SKY Agriculture, specifically dedicated to equipment for simplified cultivation techniques (TCS) and direct seeding. "These techniques represent 15–20% of agriculture and have their own requirements," says Gilbert Jouan. "SKY has Sulky's industrial know-how and experience but will be independently run by David Guy, an agronomist and farmer."

Based on La Conillais farm's 170 hectares, near Nantes, SKY will accompany TCS farmers and provide targeted services, training, and availability before, during, and after sales. The farm also has its own showroom and training center.



A new-generation plant

On a plot of 7.5 hectares, Sulky has invested 20 million euros in a new 20,000 m² production facility (previously, 13,000 m²) which required 16 months to build.

The project was conceived to be Lean: a scalable, flexible structure in its organization and operation. Examples? The choice of aerial servicing, which offers maximum flexibility to workstations. The sheds let plenty of natural light enter and allow 60% savings in lighting costs. The cataphoretic painting range, similar to what is used in the automotive industry, uses all-hydro paint. Not only does it age better over time, but it reduces the emission of solvents (less risk for painters and the environment) and tend towards zero liquid discharge. The oven canopy allows heating savings of 20–30%. Finally, the voluntary limit of 3 days' worth of storage and shipping capacity forces greater efficiency.

"Only one month was needed to move the factory from the old site to the new, and there was no break in the work," says Gilbert Jouan. "Even better, our sales jumped 27%!" The manager unveiled one of his tips for an efficent move: During the multiple visits to the new site prior to the move, each team marked out in chalk the different areas they would occupy. On the moving day, all that was left to do was move each piece of equipment directly to its spot!



A torturous process

Sulky tests the quality of its equipment under extreme conditions during fatigue tests. The 450-meter track is made up of a succession of extreme conditions (coarse gravel, sand mixture, bumps ...) and the equipment ages 8 years in the space of 15 days!



Priority to the human factor

"The culture of continuous improvement, deeply rooted in the company's genes, naturally affects the equipment and production, but also the men and women involved," says Gilbert Jouan. "We train our workers and encourage initiative and the taking of responsibility."

Some of the ways this is done is through the sponsoring of new employees by expert workers to transmit the company's behavioral standard and know-how, and the investment of 3.6% of payroll in training. This can go toward explaining the low turnover in staff, where the average length of service is 15 years.

This human dimension is also present in the partnerships that Sulky establishes with its suppliers. Many are SQA-certified (Supplier Quality Assurance), and all are involved from design to development. They work together in the Lean frame of mind: whenever possible, pace forecasts are made to improve each one's vision and efficiency.

Member of the APM (Association pour le Progrès du Management) club, Gilbert Jouan remains humble: "I do not always know what to do, but I know what not to do." So he created a little ritual with his teams: every project begins with feedback. "Whatever the business," he continues, "you always have to come back to the basics, to the fundamentals. To us, how things look is very important." Throughout the company, from the offices to the workshops, the visitor's eyes are drawn to the graphs and charts, the colors on the magnetic schedules and Post-it notes ...


Innovation is a leitmotif

The arrival of Fabien Burel's son, Jacques, to lead the company in the early 70s marks when Sulky began industrializing, including the creation of a research department. Around fifty patents and thirty registered trademarks later, more than 50% of the company's turnover is made thanks to equipment developed within the last three years.

"5% of turnover and over 10% of our staff are devoted to research," explains Gilbert Jouan. "We're currently working 3–4 years' ahead, and are for instance co-conducting studies with scientists on the movement of fertilizer particles."

Thanks to its extensive knowledge, Sulky is able to develop new product lines and innovative ways to meet the new environmental requirements. "For us, innovation is only worthwhile if it makes it easier for the end user," says Gilbert Jouan. "No longer using fertilizer at all would condemn a portion of the population to starvation. It is therefore necessary to make strategic choices, innovate in a "useful" way, and aim for the best balance between economic and environmental impacts by developing precision agriculture (micro-fertilization ...)."

To be able to anticipate new modes of production, Sulky has entered into numerous partnerships with research centers, such as IRSTEA—Institut de Recherche en Sciences et Technologies pour l'Environnement et l'Agriculture (formerly CEMAGREF)—or ARVALIS. The company is party to BASE—Biodiversité Agriculture Sol et Environnement—an agricultural group that is developing a list of best practices, and works with the association FARRE to train farmers and inform consumers. "We are in constant contact with farmers, fertilizer companies, and research centers ... Some members of our research department are part of standardization committees so that they can keep track of innovations."

Always keeping in sight the end customer, Sulky goes beyond just selling high-end hardware and positions itself as a partner of farmers. Teams of experts provide customer support, and each year, 300–400 customers receive training in the products and technologies in Sulky's authorized training center. In the cases of some of the most advanced models, the embedded electronics represent a significant portion of the purchase price.




Quality at all levels of the company

From the early 80s on, Sulky was involved in the Citroën Superforce program and began establishing its Qualité steps by using the Kanban process management system throughout the company. In 1994, Sulky and John Deere were the first agricultural machinery companies to obtain ISO 9001 certification. "This certification is not a requirement of customers," says Gilbert Jouan. "It has allowed us to structure the business organization, sustain the efforts ..." Two years later, in 1996, the company adopted the Kaizen 5S method for improving performance and reaching customers' new requirements; some tasks, such as laser cutting, were outsourced. "This is how we passed from delays of 6–8 weeks between order taking and delivery to 3 weeks. Today, this takes only 2.5 weeks."

The last stage of this continuous improvement is the application of Lean management to the production and administrative staff. The most visible change from this passage to Lean production: rather than having a separate assembly line for each machine, a single chain now produces all machines. Separated by the assembly line, the welding of hoppers is done opposite the welding of chassis. Thus, production is synchronous with the advancement of the line of components. "According to the day's orders, the line sends the technicians the parts needed to assemble the machines. The accessories requested by the customer are prepared in advance in a carriage that feeds the assembly line. This flow synchronization improves our flexibility and responsiveness. Production is made as needed and we require very little stock on the lines," says Gilbert Jouan. To date, a machine leaves the assembly line every 33 minutes. From start to finish, production is traced through a scan of the badge of each operator involved in the cycle.



From Brittany to the world

In 70 years, the reputation of Sulky has reached far beyond its Breton roots. In 2013, a third of the production is exported. The goal for 2018: a target of 50% for export, while maintaining market share in France.

Sulky's export strategy began in the mid 90s, with the opening of the eastern markets (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic ...), and experienced strong growth during the 2000s. Today, the focus is on creating new business alliances with partners such as John Deere in the CIS countries, or Rabe in the German-speaking markets. Demo tours are organized in France and abroad, spending 15 days in each country and offering presentations every day.

Today, Sulky is present in more than 50 countries through its sales networks and representatives, and collaborations with local importers, "all of whom share Sulky's professionalism and spirit of service."



SULKY in brief

1936: Creation of the first SULKY seed drill by Fabien Burel, blacksmith in Brittany.

1945: Installation in Chateaubourg (35)

1994: ISO 9001 certification

2007: Strategic partnership with the Canadian manufacturer Straw Track Manufacturing

2011: Construction of a new eco-designed 20,000 m² plant, in Chateaubourg


3 plants:

Sulky (Châteaubourg-35): sowing, fertilization (190 employees + 40 temps)

Société Nouvelle Roger (Carvin-62) sowing (20 employees)

Sirtec (Fontenay-sur-Eure-28): fertilization (30 employees)


2012–2013 turnover: 47 million euros


Website: www.sulky-burel.com

Youtube channel: www.youtube.com/user/sulkyofficiel