MILFORD, Iowa — Contrary to popular belief among those opposed to automation, Kevin Frodermann doesn’t want robots to take human's jobs.
Instead, the 37-year-old owner of 966 Industries of Milford, Iowa, wants to use the expertise of he and his staff to help to help regional companies automate systems through the use of robotics so they can find more fulfilling roles for their employees.
“We also provide integration, so we’ll install robots and automated systems in the customer’s facilities per their request,” Frodermann said. “We’ll design them, build them, prove them, put them in place and maintain them while they are there on site."
While the business also functions as a machine shop, Frodermann believes the automation side holds future potential. Within a 125-mile radius of Milford, 966 Industries is the only business certified by Fanuc America Corp. to integrate its state-of-the-art robotic products.
Frodermann explained how one recent project his company tackled will benefit the client in the long-run.
“We have one customer that’s taking a couple of people and putting them somewhere else, where they can enjoy their work more, and we’re putting robots in there to do the repetitive tasks that they’re having a hard time keeping people on,” he said.
“It’s the same thing you see a lot of robots getting used for: It’s the jobs that people don’t want to do or can’t because of safety reasons or ergonomics. This job is a perfect combination of the two.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates nearly half of the American labor force could be disrupted by automation in the next 20 years, according to a working paper titled “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from U.S. Labor Markets” published in May by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit, nonpartisan economic research group.
The paper explained why the prediction might not be as dire as it sounds:
“The researchers note that automation has several effects on the labor market. It may displace the workers performing a particular job in a particular industry, leading to reduced employment opportunities and wages for workers who historically held such positions. However, other sectors and occupations may expand to soak up labor freed from the tasks performed by machines, and it is even possible that productivity gains due to new automation technologies may expand employment possibilities in the industries in which they are deployed.”
Automation isn’t going anywhere and Frodermann wants to be on top of industry trends.
He also is aware of the need for more workforce solutions in Northwest Iowa to compensate for the region's consistently-low unemployment.
Dickinson County, where 966 Industries is based, boasted a 2.4 percent unemployment rate in October, 1.6 percent below the state average and 1.7 percent beneath the national average. Several nearby counties had rates below 2 percent, according to Iowa Workforce Development.
“We have another customer that we are going to integrate this for them on a new machine and it’s a new process,” Frodermann said gesturing toward a yellow Fanuc robot arm on his shop floor. “They need to prove that robotics can do it because they want to expand, but finding people — especially in this area — is very, very difficult.”
Manufacturing is the fourth largest employment sector in Iowa and contributes $31 billion annually to the economy, according to a study from Iowa State University’s College of Engineering and the Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations (CIRAS) program.
In the same study, CIRAS noted concerns with the industry’s continued growth in Iowa specifically stating, “Despite complaints about a scarcity of workers, few Iowa companies have adopted proven techniques for managing that resource, such as embracing automation or lean manufacturing.”
Fears of robots taking away jobs is most likely why some companies have been hesitant to implement new technologies, but Frodermann vehemently disagrees with that notion.
“We need to get over the stigma of robots are killing everyone's jobs because they are not; they really aren’t,” he said. “They’re augmenting your job and making your job easier.”
The southwest Minnesota native moved to the Iowa Great Lakes region so his children could attend school in the Okoboji school district. However, he also saw an opportunity professionally in a region saturated with manufacturers that could benefit from the implementation of automation services.
“We can weld, we can pick and place parts, we can spot weld, we can paint — all of those things can be automated and are on a regular basis,” he said. “This is not new technology; there are some things we are doing to make it smoother.
“We like to use what we call ‘elegant programming’ in the robots. And the reason I call it elegant programming is it’s not just a it does this task and this task only (robot). There’s a lot of variables and the robot is smart enough — the way that we program it — it’s smart enough to try thing more than once to see if there’s an issue.”
Frodermann conceptualized 966 Industries in fall 2015, started production by late 2016 and started hiring staff earlier this year.
Between 966 Industries and another business he owns — UpKeep, a full-service handyman company — Frodermann employs six full-time employees and three part-timers, but he’s eyeing more growth.
Ironically, the biggest obstacle holding him back from expanding his business further and at a faster clip is the same workforce challenges his automation services help other companies overcome.
“That is our biggest challenge by far,” Fordermann said. “Right now, we’re looking for a machinist, a full-time person for the handyman side, so someone with construction or even handyman related experience would be a big key for us right now but those people are hard to find.
“It’s not that they’re not out there; but they’re hard to find, they’re not looking for jobs and we’re a fairly new company and to sell us on being in business for two years is much harder to do than somebody down the street who’s been a contractor for 30 years.”
Although 966 Industries is still one of the new kids on the block in the Okoboji region, Frodermann is confident about the company’s future.
“We’re looking forward to growth,” he said. “I’m already starting to look for areas to build because we are going to outgrow this facility.”