In cohoots with cobots? Iowa manufacturers need to adapt quickly to automation revolution

Brandon Timmerman sands the edge of a cabinet door in January 2020 at Forever Cabinets in Edgewood. A new state report s
Brandon Timmerman sands the edge of a cabinet door in January 2020 at Forever Cabinets in Edgewood. A new state report summarizes the changes coming in manufacturing and puts forward recommendations to help Iowa businesses stay competitive in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa manufacturers who do not adapt quickly to the changing manufacturing environment could lose their “competitive edge,” according to a 120-page report commissioned by Iowa Economic Development Authority.

The report comes in preparation for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which promises “advances and disruptions to manufacturing” like those that came after the first three industrial revolutions: water and steam power; mass assembly; and computing and robotics.

The plan emphasizes small- to medium-sized manufacturers in the state.

“What we see is that our larger manufacturers or OEMs — original equipment manufacturers — are requiring more and more out of their suppliers,” said Jill Lippincott, IEDA’s team lead for innovation and apprenticeship.

All 99 counties in Iowa could see automation affect between 50 percent and 61 percent of their manufacturing jobs.

“For instance, we find manufacturers potentially utilizing ‘cobots’ — collaborative robots that can work alongside humans — and those are really helpful for doing some of the repetitive tasks that employees might be doing by hand, freeing up those employees so they can be working on more focused tasks.” Lippincott said.

The Manufacturing 4.0 report also “makes the case of why manufacturing is so important to Iowa,” said Debi Durham, director of the IEDA and the Iowa Finance Authority.

The sector accounts for 64 percent of Iowa’s exports, 17 percent of Iowa’s gross domestic product and about 17 percent of the state’s private workforce, according to the report.


Manufacturing 4.0 includes more than a dozen “action items” surrounding supply chain, infrastructure, technology, workforce and startup improvements for policymakers and businesses.

Durham said the supply chain challenges during coronavirus are causing companies to want to “bring the supply chain closer.”

“They’re just having trouble getting product, and that is wherever they’re sourcing material from,” Durham told The Gazette.

Along with hearing from companies about it, she has seen it first hand.

“Selfishly, I can tell you I’ve been waiting for a dining room table for a year, and it’s being manufactured in the U.S.,” Durham said.

Lippincott said worker safety was another component that changed because of the coronavirus.

The recommended workforce items include preparing for a “micro-credentialing” education system.

“It’ll be like an individual at a factory could have like a cybersecurity badge,” Durham said.

“So it’s not a two-year degree. It’s not a four-year degree, but it’s some kind of specialized training and certification that makes me a more valuable employee.”

The report also calls for a website that would connect manufacturing start-ups with investors and provide other support services.

Lippincott said implementation can begin immediately.


“There are a number of things that we’ll put in place in the near future and things we’ll work on long-term,” she said.

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