Robots Handle Specific Manufacturing Tasks at Iowa Facility

Randy Schofield, who serves as director of Upper Mississippi Manufacturing Innovation Center at Northeast Iowa Community College, said the use of robots is a relatively new phenomenon for local manufacturers.


East Iowa Machine Co. employs about 150 people at its Farley facility, but these days, it is not just the people that keep the company running efficiently.

Like many other manufacturing companies, East Iowa Machine Co. turned to robots to carry out many tasks traditionally performed by humans, the Telegraph Herald reported.

Plant Manager Rick Hoffman said the company has six robots: Two "machine-tending" robots and four robots used in the welding department.

The company also uses three gantry loaders -- machines tasked with loading and unloading computer numerical control, or CNC, machines -- which are not technically considered robots but perform similar tasks.

Hoffman said the company plans to invest in two more robots.

"We are growing and we are becoming more profitable because of the robots," he said.

On both a global and local level, many manufacturers are adopting a similar approach.

The International Federation of Robotics estimates 225,000 industrial robots were sold in 2014, up 27 percent from 2013. The biggest jump in sales took place in China and South Korea, but robot sales to the Americas and to Europe also reached new peak levels.

Here in the tri-states, manufacturing companies also are embracing the latest technological advances.

Randy Schofield, who serves as director of Upper Mississippi Manufacturing Innovation Center at Northeast Iowa Community College, said the use of robots is a relatively new phenomenon for local manufacturers.

"There have been a lot more manufacturers jumping on board just in the last year," said Schofield.

NICC prepares multiple local employers to incorporate robots into their workflow by offering welding robots, machine-handling robots and robots that work with CNC machines, Schofield said.

Through courses offered at NICC, manufacturing companies can get hands-on experience with these devices and take the knowledge back to the workplace.

In many cases, Schofield said, companies turn to robots to cut down on overtime costs. Some local manufacturers also use the machines to make up for a lack of skilled workers.

Schofield emphasized that these robots are not eliminating jobs, noting that this is a common misperception. Instead, he said, robots have created new educational opportunities, with people attending college to work with and control these robots in a manufacturing setting.

As economies throughout the world incorporate robots, Schofield said, it is essential that the U.S. doesn't fall behind the curve.

"Robotics are a great way to keep jobs here in the U.S.," he said.

Hoffman emphasized East Iowa Machine Co. primarily uses the machines to automate simple tasks.

For instance, the company's "machine-tending robots" -- often referred to as machine-handling robots -- are capable of loading and unloading 5,000 pieces from machines on a daily basis.

Hoffman said this is the kind of monotonous work that employees generally want to avoid.

"Our use of robots definitely doesn't lower our need for employees," Hoffman said. "It is not like we are laying people off because of it. What we are really pushing for is to take the simple stuff and automate it."

Hoffman said the company has used robots for approximately a decade. In that time, he has seen a noteworthy evolution in how the machines are used and managed.

"Now, they are more user-friendly, they have quicker set-ups and they are easier to program and run," Hoffman said.

Randy Decker, of Decker Precision Machining in Peosta, purchased the first robots for his company about two years ago.

Decker Precision Machining uses FANUC robots. Decker said these machines are used to stack parts on a halter loader, and then place them inside a CNC machine.

So far, he has been pleased with the results.

"They are consistent," Decker said of the machines. "With humans you have operator error, people are frequently going to the bathroom or getting a drink or taking a break. With a robot, there is no downtime."

The robots cost $100,000 apiece, but Decker said the company realizes savings because machines don't require costs such as health care and workers' compensation. With a lack of skilled workers available locally, Decker said, it seemed wise to invest in automation.

"It was about timing," he said. "Instead of expanding our workforce, it seemed like the right time to invest in some updated technology."

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