Technological advances affect companies in various ways. The leaders of some companies embrace those advances, while others are cautious to adopt them. Sometimes, technological advances simply take a long time to come to certain industries.
James Skinner, who opened his bakery in 1983, came from a family long associated with making food. His grandfather and great-uncle had founded Skinner Macaroni in 1910.
When Hershey Foods Corp. bought the macaroni company in 1979, the younger Skinner decided to open his own independent business.
Although it was toward the end of the 20th century, bread was still being made as it had been for years.
“We used rolling pins on tabletops and hand-loaded the ovens,” Skinner said.
In 1989, the bakery acquired a fully-automatic oven. “You put a pan on a conveyor belt, and it came out the other end,” said Skinner, who is now chairman of the board of James Skinner Baking Company.
From that time on, Skinner invested in equipment that would increase production of his baked goods.
A machine called a sheeting line eliminated hand-cutting of dough. Other machines dispensed dough and icing.
“We put in conveyors that had auto fillers and auto panners, which put the product into the pans,” said Audie Keaton, chief executive officer of the Omaha-based company, which is now the fourth-largest sweet goods bakery in the United States. “What once took 30 to 35 people to do was now done by eight.” Another machine shrink-wrapped the products when they reached the end of the production line.
“About 22, 23 people had done it by hand,” Keaton said. “Now seven do it.”
In some companies, new technology has meant letting people go. Not so with Skinner.
“We never lost a person. Everyone was shifted to another position,” Skinner said with pride. “The nicest thing to see is how a person who had been on the line for years is now in an office on a computer.”
The technology the bakery buys is off the shelf, said Keaton, but the programs are custom-made for the company, which makes more than 300 products, including muffins, cinnamon rolls, snack cakes, sweet dough, frozen dough, croissants and its signature Danish rolls. Skinner said customers expect his baked goods to remain consistent over the years, and advances in technology have allowed his company to achieve that consistency.
Maintaining quality is also a concern of another Omaha firm, Distefano Technology & Manufacturing, which makes components of machinery for other companies, such as the decks of lawn mowers for Toro.
“Advanced technology allows us to make good quality parts and to maintain quality through the process,” said Brian Turner, the company's vice president and general manager.
Bought by Behlen Manufacturing Co. in 2008, Distefano fabricates metal parts more precisely and more quickly than it could not long ago.
“We're big into lasers,” Turner said. “In early 2000, we used a 2,000-watt laser. Now we use a 6,000-watt laser.”
The more powerful laser operates three to five times faster than its older counterpart and cuts thicker sheets of steel. “We're doing things that were impossible 10 years ago,” Turner said.
In one area of the plant, which is on South 108th Street just south of Interstate 80, a computer directs a laser to slice an intricate design into a heavy sheet of steel, showering sparks around its sheltered workspace.
Nearby, two long-armed robots hover over pieces of steel steadied for them to weld. Tall, thick curtains lining their work areas protect nearby workers from the sharp, blue-white flashes of the welding heads.
Distefano's products also are used by other companies that manufacture machinery used in turf care and agriculture, such as combines.
At Ellison Technologies Automation in Council Bluffs, a cluster of three yellow, one-armed robots near a larger one-armed robot were motionless as company President John Burg walked around them.
“In 2000, we couldn't have designed this,” said Burg, who founded the forerunner of ET Automation — Automated Concepts Inc. — in 1983 with his father, Marlo Burg, to integrate robotics into the production lines of manufacturing companies.
He pointed at the large robot and talked about technological advances.
“In 2005, the most an arm could lift was 1,300 pounds,” he said. “This one can lift 3,000 pounds and turn whatever it holds in all directions.”
The setup of robot arms was undergoing final testing before being shipped to a company where the big arm will lift a partially assembled cab frame of a long-haul truck from a storage pen and hold it as the other three robots work on it with their welders. At times, the welding robots will back off so the big arm can reposition the cab frame for the welding of different areas.
The system must work properly as soon as it is set up at its work location. If the system has a problem, it is programmed to fix itself.
“Our customers have no tolerance for us to teach them or to fix something. That takes time from their production,” Burg said. “They want to press a button and it will go.
“There's a lot more technology available than we can absorb,” Burg said. “We're probably going to see more change in the next 10 years than in the past 20.”