Sulky-Burel is based in Châteaubourg near Rennes, in western France. The company specialises in the design and manufacture of soil preparation, drilling and fertilisation equipment. The family-owned business, now in its third generation, employs over 250 people, and builds up to 6,000 machines each year.
The firm was founded in 1936 and exports in the region of 40% of the products it manufactures. Sulky claims to be the market leader in fertiliser spreaders and seed drills in France, and in the top three producers in Europe. In terms of production, fertiliser spreaders account for 60%, while seeding equipment accounts for 40%.
Sulky was founded by Fabien Burel, a blacksmith from the French town. In the 1930s, the seed drills used in western France all came from Paris. However, local farmers struggled, as these were in fact too big, and required two horses to pull.
The French domestic market is Sulky’s mainstay, accounting for 60% of production. In terms of export, Poland , the UK and Central Europe are Sulky’s top markets. The manufacturer has big plans to ramp up export in the coming years.
Up until 2011, Sulky was manufacturing out of its original factory, which was located in the town centre of Châteaubourg. The 13,000m2 factory was built in 1945, and the town had grown around it over the years. The company had a long-term vision of designing a purpose-built manufacturing and assembly factory on a greenfield site, on the outskirts of the town.
This dream was realised in July 2011 after a €15m investment, as Sulky moved into its new 20,000m2 factory which coincided with its 75th birthday. The manufacturer is currently building a new spare parts centre.
We have visited many factories throughout the world in recent years and the Sulky factory is right up there with the most modern and well laid out. It is clean, bright, airy, structured and features loads of automation. The day we visited, 30 fertiliser spreaders were scheduled to be built on one line, alongside a host of seed drills on the other line.
Like most modern factories, no machines are built for stock. Every unit that comes off the production line has a customer, whether it’s for dealer stock or sold to an end user, it’s all built to order.
Sulky typically runs off a four-month sales forecast. This is to give the factory every opportunity to keep the correct components in stock. Sulky representatives said the current lead time on new kit is running at four to six months, with delivery on specialised kit taking up to a year.
One thing we found significant was the fact that everything from the storage of raw steel to the loading of trucks took place under one roof.
The journey for the basic componentry starts at the storage area, which is comparable to an internal warehouse. Depending on the item supplier, some parts arrive loose while others arrive in assembled kits – regardless or which, they undergo a quality check.
Most of the laser cutting is subbed out to local subcontractors. Meanwhile, 90% of the welding takes place in-house, the majority through three robotic welders, and the remainder by 15 welders.
Although manufacturing also takes place on site, the factory relies heavily on the Japanese “just in time” (JIT) process whereby componentry arrives on site as needed. As all machines are built to order, it means particular components required for a specific machine are hand-picked and assembled into kit trolleys. They contain the exact number of components required for assembly. These kit trolleys are delivered to each assembly station, and can be seen all over the plant.
Sulky places a huge amount of emphasis on quality control. As one rep said, “If we have a problem at the factory, it’s relatively easy to find out the issue and sort it. But if we don’t, and the affected batch of machines end up somewhere like New Zealand, then we have a very big problem.
“Bad news spreads faster than good news. French research has shown that one person happy with a service will tell seven people, while one unhappy person will tell 24 people”.
Another interesting point was the fact that every large machine, such as a press brake (€360,000), had its buying price labelled on it. According to Sulky, the idea behind this is to make workers aware of the value, and to appreciate the machines they operate.
One of the more impressive elements of the Sulky factory is the multi-stage paint process. Given the corrosive nature of the products being spread, preparation and painting are highly important processes. Before the process starts, all parts and components are hung on the 800m long overhead conveyor system.
The first stage is preparing the steel. In simple terms, all items are shot-blasted first, then degreased, primed and painted. This process uses the latest of technologies, including alkaline degreasing and cleaning, inverse cascade rinsing, nano-ceramic conversion, three-in-one rinsing with reverse osmosis water and a final reverse osmosis water rinse arch.
Once dried and contaminant free, components receive the first layer of primer and are heated to 160°C for 40 minutes. This process is known as Electrophoretic Deposition (EPD). Here the paint is positively charged and the objects to be painted are negatively charged, causing the paint to form a better bond. Once dried, a second layer of primer is manually applied and baked before a final top coat of water-soluble finishing paint.
Quality control is a large part of the process yet again, with samples taken from every batch and sent to the quality department for testing and analysis. Things such as anti-corrosion performance, checking of pH, checking of the dry extract and viscosity are all measured, ensuring results are within tolerance. Baking ovens are fuelled using gas along with a heat exchange unit to save energy.
Other brands in the group
Today, the Burel family are involved in more than just the manufacture of spreaders and drills. The Burel Group now encompasses the Sky and Prolog brands.
The Sky brand was strategically established in 2013 as a solution for Sulky dealers already carrying a separate brand of min-till equipment that did not offer a direct drilling range of machines. The name Sky was formed by removing “ul” from the Sulky name.
This provided the Burel Group with access to many dealers carrying competitor brands of traditional tillage equipment but not in the space of direct drilling.
Sky Agriculture evolved from an initial conversation in the 1970s between Sulky’s Jacques Burel and Sam Moore, the man behind the Moore Unidrill which at the time was built in Northern Ireland. Soon after, Sulky became the importer of the Moore drills in France and other French-speaking countries. In return, Sulky supplied Moore with hoppers and metering units.
By 2007, this joint venture ended with Sulky further developing the W1000 series to form the Easy Drill. In 2013, the no-till Easy Drill and cultivator Maxi Drill 1000 were rebranded as Sky, a subsidiary of Sulky.
More recently, the Burel Group has strengthened its European presence following the acquisition of a majority stake in Italian power harrow manufacturer Frandent in 2021. It is 20 years since the French company first approached Frandent (2001) with a request for the manufacturer to supply it with power harrows for its drill combinations.
In 2019, Sulky formed a partnership with Lemken, whereby Sulky’s range of fertiliser spreaders would be branded in Lemken livery. Both companies initially forecasted gains from the arrangement, which has being going very well to date. It allowed Lemken to extend its product portfolio and Sulky to make better use of its production facilities.
Both the French and German people are very loyal to their own homegrown brands. Car brands and tractor brands are prime examples. This move has worked well for both parties, with spreader sales growing.
“Fertiliser spreader sales are continuing to be very busy. More and more farmers are making the move towards higher specification machines with on-board weighing, on the move automatic calibration and GPS control.
“Higher fertiliser costs have increased farmers’ interest. In terms of drills, the trend is towards front-mounted tanks with rear mounted drills.
“This allows farmers to operate wider drills on lower horsepower tractors,” explained Gilbert Simon, Sulky after sales export manager (export).
Farmec based in Co Meath has been the Irish distributor of the Sulky brand since 2003 and the Northern Irish distributor since 2015.