Local manufacturers look toward automation with $3.3 million state funding boost

Workforce Innovation Grants

Iowa manufacturers with 76 to 250 employees could apply for up to a $500,000 grant, with a minimum 25% match required.

  • Dubuque Stamping and Manufacturing, Dubuque — $500,000.
  • East Iowa Machine Co., Farley — $500,000.
  • Inventory Trading Co., Peosta — $500,000.
  • Plastics Unlimited, Preston — $475,000.
  • ProPulse, a Schieffer Co., Peosta — $453,192.
  • Klauer Manufacturing, Dubuque — $434,110.
  • Premier Tooling & Manufacturing, Peosta — $179,025.

Iowa manufacturers with three to 75 employees could apply for a combined $75,000 between the following two categories, with a 100% match required for each grant.

Equipment Technology Investment Grants 

  • Dynamic Tube, Maquoketa — $50,000.
  • EIP Manufacturing, Earlville — $50,000.
  • JAM Systems and Midland Overhead Doors, Dyersville — $50,000.
  • MJ Sports, Anamosa — $50,000.
  • Universal Tank & Fabrication, Dubuque — $50,000.

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) Infrastructure Investment Grants

  • EIP Manufacturing — $25,000.
  • MJ Sports — $25,000.

Amid an ongoing workforce shortage, an array of local manufacturers will receive a boost from $3.3 million in state funding that encourages expanded automation.

The 12 area companies are among more than 80 businesses receiving grants through Iowa’s Manufacturing 4.0 program. The grants, available through Iowa Economic Development Authority, are designed to help address workforce issues and fund projects that encompass the adoption and integration of smart technologies.

Iowa manufacturers with 76 to 250 employees could apply for up to a $500,000 grant, with a minimum 25% match required.

One of those local businesses is ProPulse, a Schieffer company, based in Peosta. The hose assembly manufacturer plans to use its $453,192 grant to expand automation in its winding processes and add pick-and-place robots, said President and CEO Jeff Theis.

“We already have some semi-automatic assembly and winding systems, so we’ll continue to add to those and refine them for a greater degree of output and accuracy,” he said.

Dubuque Stamping and Manufacturing, which provides machining services such as metal stamping and laser cutting, received a $500,000 grant. President Matt Spahn said the funding will help the company add advanced software and manufacturing equipment.

“Dubuque Stamping will be investing about $1.5 million in new equipment and technology this year,” he said. “We’re excited about the Manufacturing 4.0 grant that Governor (Kim) Reynolds has made available. Opportunities like this ensure Iowa manufacturing stays globally competitive.”

Inventory Trading Co. in Peosta employs around 180 people between its two brands: Hero247, which manufactures textiles for police, fire and FBI departments, and X-Grain Sportswear, which makes textiles for sports teams.

Prior to COVID-19, the company also employed nontraditional workers who held other full-time jobs but would put in several hours with Inventory Trading Co. in the evenings.

When the pandemic hit, those supplemental employees “evaporated like pouring water out on asphalt,” said President Pat Einarsen. Some workers were concerned about potential COVID-19 exposure, while others were working overtime at their full-time jobs to meet heightened demand.

Inventory Trading Co. turned to increased automation, enhanced computer technologies and new machinery to bridge the gap. A $500,000 Manufacturing 4.0 grant will help continue those efforts.

Einarsen said incorporating automation can cut down on training time, deepen the hiring pool and eliminate human error, while allowing employees to work more efficiently and safely.

“You cannot afford to be thinking like it’s the 1980s or 1990s,” he said. “You have to be thinking like it’s the 2030s. The innovation grant gives us the ability to use the right equipment, the right training and the right process.”

In Farley, East Iowa Machine Co. received a $500,000 grant. President and CFO Aaron Saeugling said the company will use it to add robots and five-axis CNC milling machines used to create component parts.

“(Automation) is definitely going to be needed in the future, and in order to get some of these parts out the door, we’re going to need to come up with creative solutions,” he said.

Iowa manufacturers with three to 75 employees could apply for up to $75,000, with a 100% match required for each grant.

Employees at Dynamic Tube in Maquoketa will see the benefits of the company’s $50,000 grant immediately.

General Manager John Pawlowski said the grant will fund the purchase of a high-production saw, which is already installed at the company’s facility. The saw can be programmed to cut tubes at the push of a button, allowing Dynamic Tube to increase its production volume and lower its price point.

“Especially right now, when it’s difficult to find employees to fill the need, robotics and more automatic processes, where a more limited number of actual people are required, are getting a lot busier,” he said.

The local company leaders reached by the Telegraph Herald emphasized that increased automation does not coincide with planned workforce cuts. Many continue to hire employees, and Theis said new technology can create new jobs for workers to maintain equipment.

“Certainly, nobody wants to eliminate the human element,” he said. “We’re just trying to find ways to make the human component of manufacturing easier, better and more accurate.”