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Manufacturing with robots

Published: Aug 19 2021
Robot performs work.
Written by: Andrew Weeks
Image: Courtesy of Steffes

The wider manufacturing industry continues to be a boon to the region’s economy.

Over the past two years, Steffes has installed several robots at its facility in Dickinson, N.D. These robots help the company improve efficiency, but more particularly, according to Manufacturing Engineering Manager Jeremy Jahner, the robots ensure quality.

“That’s definitely a trend in the industry today,” he said of robotics.

The company is now considering an important question: what’s next?

“Efficiency is very important,” he said. “But to me it is about consistency and quality.”

Unlike people, robots don’t need breaks, don’t sweat or feel fatigue. They never request time off.

That’s not saying anything negative about the company’s dedicated human workers. It’s just a fact of these technological times.

And despite what some people might think -- that hiring robots means real people lose their jobs -- robots allow employees to tackle new fields and advance their skill sets and, as such, their career options.

As an example, with robots the company needs fewer welders, “people with the stinger in their hands burning wire,” Jahner said. “But it really has pushed us. Now we need more technicians that can program the robots, take care of the robots, those things that keep them running. And so it really has given our welders career advancement opportunities, which is exciting. … All of our technicians have started out as welders.”

The robots the company currently uses are programmed for welding, but Jahner said in the future the company will use robots for additional manufacturing work.

“We have done about as much as we can do with this type of robotics,” he said. “We can have more of them, obviously, but what really is the next step is having robots loading parts into the fixtures. We’d have a person load the part and then put a button and the robot would actually do the welding.

They’re called machine-tending robots and now the machine, the robot, is actually loading the machine and advancing it to the next step. That will be the next step for us.

Manufacturing in the Region

Steffes, like other manufacturers in North Dakota, helps fill a critical role in the state, regional and national economies.

To put numbers on the important role manufacturing plays, the industry accounts for roughly 7.28% of all GDP in the state, produces about $4.16 billion in product every year, and offers an average salary of roughly $65,000 a year, according to Matt Gardner, director of government affairs with the Greater North Dakota Chamber.

Several areas of the state, including the Red River Valley, have an especially strong manufacturing presence in North Dakota, he said.

That will only continue, especially as these companies work with institutions of higher learning, many which have manufacturing programs, to tap talent. The state’s Department of Commerce offers internship and scholarship programs.

“Overall, I think the state is working hard to help all industries, including manufacturing, to get the workforce that it needs,” Gardner said.

Minnesota and South Dakota also have a heavy manufacturing presence, with the former having a total yearly output of $52.01 billion in 2019, accounting for 13.55% of the state’s total output and employing roughly 11.36% of the state’s workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Average annual compensation for manufacturers in Minnesota was more than $80,000 in 2019.

South Dakota saw a manufacturing output of $5.12 billion the same year, accounting for 9.32% of the total output in the state, according to numbers by the NAM. It employs around 10% of the workforce with an annual compensation of more than $61,000.

As for exporting the goods, manufactured items in the region are shipped all over the globe. In 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, some $3.12 billion in manufactured goods were exported from North Dakota. Some $2.82 billion was with North Dakota’s free-trade agreement partners.

North Dakota’s neighbor to the north, Canada, is its biggest trading partner. While borders were closed to travel during the pandemic, they were open for trade so economies could continue, Gardner said.

That helped lessen the impact of the pandemic on many manufacturers in the region, though they have been faced with other challenges -- namely, securing some material to manufacture products.

Jahner said Steffes has felt some of that impact.

Materials challenges aside, Gardner said the pandemic pushed some businesses to tap their potential.

“It unleashed the power of private businesses,” such as Pfizer, another chamber member, to innovate with a new vaccine, he said. Gardner said it is an example of what businesses, including manufacturers, can do when they are intuitive.

What does the future look like for the region? Bright, he said.

And for North Dakota in particular?

“I think there’s a goal to attract all manufacturing companies and to boost the ones we have,” Gardner said. “But if there’s a targeted area, I would say it’s around unmanned aerial systems … and as a byproduct, tech companies, startups, and some longer-term companies that are making parts and pieces to support that industry.”

Biopharmaceuticals is another industry that is growing, he said, and value-added agriculture is another priority, giving a nod to a soybean crushing plant that is planned in the central North Dakota community of Spiritwood. (See a story about the soybean facility also in this month’s Prairie Business.)

“It’s amazing what manufacturers make in this state, all over the state,” he said. “I visit with them all of the time and it’s amazing the things they’re making right here in North Dakota.”

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