Prestage to use robots when plant open
By CHAD THOMPSON
EAGLE GROVE – When Prestage Foods of Iowa opens its $250 million pork plant in Wright County, the company plans to use advanced robotics for its processes, according to Jere Null, chief operating officer of Prestage.
The robots are expected to ease the burden on employees and improve efficiency, Null said.
“There’s going to be a number of high-tech machines involved in our process, including robotics with vision,” he said.
According to Null, computers will analyze images and determine how the robots should be used.
Among the jobs robots will be tasked with include precision meat-cutting.
“Imagine you take several frames of a carcass coming by and the computer can distinguish lean from bone from fat,” Null said. “It can tell that robotic arm exactly how to cut based on what it’s looking at.”
A waterjet cutter will be used to make cuts. The high-pressure water system will be used to slice through meat and bone.
“It’s like a laser beam of water that’s vision operated,” Null said. “It’s looking and taking so many images a second and a computer is telling that waterjet cutter how to cut product up.”
Water-saving technologies and odor control will also be features of the plant, according to Null.
Robots will change the skills needed from workers, Null added.
“A lot of the precision cutting we are doing is moving towards robotics,” Null said. “What would have previously been a laborious, back-breaking type job like holding a heavy saw and cutting and things like that can now be done by a robot.”
“Your employee that you end up hiring will be an electronics engineer that will help program and maintain the robot,” he added. “It’s a highly productive piece of equipment, but it changes the skillset we need from employees.”
Prestage plans to employ 1,050 people when the plant opens in November 2018, Null said.
The development agreement between Prestage and Wright County requires that the company employ at minimum 922 workers.
Null said the company is working closely with Iowa Central Community College for workforce training.
Dan Kinney, president of Iowa Central, said those plans are still being finalized.
He said the training will likely begin at the start of 2018.
The program used by Iowa Central to train workers is called Iowa Industrial New Jobs. It provides flexible funding for employee training for new jobs created.
The program is financed through bonds sold by Iowa’s 15 community colleges, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
Kinney said the program comes at no cost to Iowa taxpayers.
“This allows the state to attract new businesses, help cover some of that training cost, but really it’s not costing the state anything because it’s done through their withholding tax,” hesaid. “This is really a unique program.”
The length of training needed to gain employment at Prestage will vary based on the individual and the position at the company.
“It’s really geared towards the business themselves and what they want the training on,” Kinney said. “Somebody who is coming out of advanced manufacturing, it may not take as long.”
“It could be two to four weeks or six to nine months, depending on what levels of training they want us to do, as well as the background of the student or that individual they hired,” he added.
Kinney said robotics are changing the needs of employers and how students are educated.
“It’s really advanced,” he said. “It takes an individual with a strong background in computers and robotics.”
“Through the last number of years it really has advanced more and more,” Kinney said. “When you talk about STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), you hear about that a lot. It’s being taught more in elementary and all the way up. That’s expanding to the college setting.”
Iowa Central adapting
As a result, Iowa Central is adapting to those changes.
“More businesses are becoming technical and requiring those different skillsets and that’s where we can step in and do the training,” Kinney said. “We are there to tie that gap together to keep these businesses up and going.”
Shelly Blunk, executive director of economic and workforce development for Iowa Central, said she anticipates a majority of training for Prestage workers will take place at the North Central Career Academy, located in Eagle Grove.
She said Iowa Central has plans to offer free English as a Second Language courses in Eagle Grove.
Those classes are to be offered in August.
“We are trying to prepare for growing needs and this will also help people become more hirable when Prestage has job openings,” she said.
In October, Iowa Central plans to offer an entry-level manufacturing program.
“There will be further opportunities for people to gain skills to better prepare them to enter the workforce and to be eligible for a position at Prestage,” Blunk said. “Right now we are trying to better prepare our current pool so they are ready to hit the ground when the jobs open.”
New plant engineer
Prestage has not hired anyone to work in the plant yet, but has hired a plant engineer.
Tim Schelle has filled that position. His job is to oversee the building of the plant.
Schelle has relocated to Webster City from Des Moines.
The lowest paid workers are expected to start at $13 an hour, while the average wage is expected to be $15.71 an hour.
Average annual wages at the plant are projected at $47,000.
The average annual income for Wright County is $25,964.
Null said there has been a lot of interest in employment.
“We have had a lot of resumes and a lot of people inquiring about employment,” he said. “We are very encouraged by that. We know that staffing will be a challenge and we will promote ourselves very aggressively and ultimately we will put together a compensation package and benefits package that we think will be very competitive for the area. I think that’s important.”
Null said the company will likely begin to hire key management positions at the start of 2018.
Prestage broke ground at the site, five miles south of Eagle Grove, in March.
Epstein Global, headquartered in Chicago, is the general contractor for the project.
Concrete foundations are being poured.
Local contractors are also at the site. About 75 people have been working at the site each day, Null said.
Jensen Builders Ltd., of Fort Dodge, is one local contractor that is on-site, he reported.
By July, some of the initial steel framework is to be erected, according to Null.
The goal is to have the roof over top of the plant by mid-December to allow crews to work inside during the winter.
“After that, it will literally be the next 12 months to do the plumbing and electrical,” Null said.
Prestage plans to process for grocery retailers throughout the country and other processors that make bacon or ham, according to Null.
About 25 percent of the meat Prestage processes will be exported, he said. He said the three biggest export markets will be Mexico, China and Japan.
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