Using advanced engineering software and technology, Steffes is making strides to lead the state and other places around the world in manufacturing as the economy is picking up from last year’s outbreak of the coronavirus.
"Last year came with some challenges — not only for us at Steffes but around the globe," Steffes Vice President of People and Culture Kim Heidt said. "We were not only impacted by COVID-19 and needing to put into place a solid prevention strategy for the safety of our team members but were also simultaneously impacted by the oil and gas industry downturn. This year we turned a new lead and put our focus on the positives. We continue our journey of reinventing and diversifying business so that Steffes is a company in business 100 years from now."
Environmental Health and Safety Manager Bethany Kovash noted that as soon as the coronavirus pandemic hit North Dakota in early March last year, Steffes jumped right on with the protocols issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“We were all first timers in a pandemic So Steffes’ approach on how to keep our employees safe was really following CDC guidance. Information was coming in (and) changing, but we really decided from the get-go that we were going to utilize CDC requirements as our baseline,” Kovash said, adding, “And then OSHA put a lot of information out for employers, as well as the North Dakota Department of Health. That's the information we utilize to build our protocols.”
Reorganizing workspaces and putting up Plexiglass barriers followed suit at Steffes.
“... Naturally, out on our production floor, people are spaced out. But where we couldn't maintain that 6 feet of physical distance that's where the mask came in,” Kovash said. “So we sourced a lot of disposable masks right away when the pandemic began, but we also allowed our employees to bring in their own face masks, as long as they were CDC compliant. So we were really pushing the educational material out to our employees on ‘the why’ behind the face-mask usage but also what sort of mask you need to have to aid in COVID prevention.”
Steffes remained opened throughout the coronavirus pandemic and one of the main reasons for that was due to its large, spacious facility, Marketing Manager Kaylee Lapp said.
“For distance wise, we made it so the employees that could work remotely or whatever for the distancing purposes, we really encouraged them to do that. (We) really kind of spaced everybody apart in that comfortable atmosphere and really stayed true to the protocols,” Lapp said.
With the economic downturns in oil and gas, economies tanked across the world. Steffes was no exception to that effect, and some employees were laid off in March 2020. However, Lapp said that the corporation is beginning to hire those employees back as the economy recovers.
“... We had to make some tough decisions that still affect us today. But as the vaccinations continue to roll out we're really looking forward to the positives in the new year and we have a really bright future here,” Lapp said.
Steffes Manufacturing/Engineering Manager Jeremy Jahner noted that Steffes also partakes in contract manufacturing, which entails building parts for other companies.
“Those other products we would design ourselves. We would design them, market them (and) sell them. The contract is (when) someone comes to us with a drawing, and says here build this. And then that's what we would do,” Jahner said. “... We do contract manufacturing for other OEM (original equipment manufacturer); we’re not like a weld shop that a farmer can come in and say ‘Hey, this is broken. Can you fix it for me?’ We don’t do that kind of manufacturing. We build repeatable things for large customers.”
Moving forward, Jahner said that Steffes is going to be pushing for automation. At the beginning of this year, Steffes incorporated some new equipment that officials are continuing to analyze.
Steffes serves entities across North Dakota with its main location in Dickinson and two manufacturing facilities in Grand Forks. Steffes has created unique contracts with those in Brazil, Canada and Italy as well as other states from Hawaii, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming.
A quality Steffes strives to reach is continuing to progress into the future as well as giving employees an opportunity to advance their careers.
“We’re a manufacturing company but we really thrive off of engineering. That’s where our niche is,” Lapp said. “ But the owner Paul Steffes — the former CEO — he would say that we have to reinvent ourselves continuously, because a lot of the products that we build today, we didn’t build five years ago. So this continuous reinvention process, which is the need for this engineering focus (and) manufacturing, really helps us grow into the future and where we can be a company that lives for the next 100 years.”
Jahner added, “It's not just products, it's also our processes. So as our products change, our manufacturing processes have to change with that. It's about innovation, and it's not just at the product level — it's at all levels of the company.”
With approximately 300 employees, Jahner noted that the push now is to incorporate new jobs as technology advances in the workplace.
“One of the big things we've noticed with automation is (that) it shifts the workload and it shifts the type of work. So we may put in robots that now we don't have to have welders welding manually, but now we need people that know how to run the robots, service the robots, program the robots,” Janher said, explaining, “So we've got a whole new group of people that we now need. And in a lot of instances we're able to take those welders and now they're the people that are programming the robots right. So we just changed their job, instead of replacing their job.”