Cascade plant relies on high-tech machines to create parts

CASCADE, Iowa (AP) — Through the hustle and bustle of the Centro Inc. facility in Cascade’s industrial park, the arms of a three-pronged machine move through the air with carefully thought-out precision.

The rotational molding machine moves through the various stages of creating parts like a choreographed dance, spinning all the while in a slow, deliberate motion. The smallest molds are the size of large suitcases — the largest, closer to small cars.

“You’ll notice that it’s rotating this way,” said Operations Manager Mike Stopko, gesturing with his hands to mimic the machine’s motion. “But it’s also rotating that way along the second axis.”

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports that the biaxial rotation is an essential part of the rotational molding process done at the Centro site in Cascade, in which resin is poured into various molds, then heated and cooled. Rotating in two directions makes sure the resin is evenly distributed against all sides of the mold, ensuring an even thickness and clean shape.

The custom rotational molding facility opened its Cascade location in October 2021, one of 10 of the North Liberty, Iowa-based company’s manufacturing sites across the U.S. and Brazil. The two Rotalign machines at the Cascade site make pieces for Deere & Co. and Honeywell.

“We’re making parts where you can go out in the field or drive down the road and see them being used,” machine operator Jeff Oberbroeckling said of the products made for the Cascade site’s main client, Deere & Co. “You can see the impact.”

Some of the items made at the site include hoppers and fertilizer tanks for Deere & Co. and industrial eye wash stations for Honeywell.

Regardless of size, Stopko said it takes around one hour for each mold to make it through the entire production process. Both three-armed machines run 24/7, meaning the numbers quickly can add up when there are no major delays.

Centro chose Cascade for the facility because of its proximity to major highways and access to a new labor pool. The Cascade City Council approved nearly $245,000 in incentives to entice the business, and the company later received another $192,000 through the state’s 260E Iowa Industrial New Jobs Training program — administered by Northeast Iowa Community College — to train up to 30 new employees.

Cascade Economic Development Corp. President Brad Ludwig said that since then, Centro has worked hard to become a part of the Cascade community by being present at area events and collaborating with other local businesses.

“They’ve been a great asset as far as attracting a different kind of workforce … and attracting employees from outside of Cascade to the area,” Ludwig said. “But also what they’ve done is given back to the community. They’re involved in events, and they want to work with businesses in the area instead of competing against them.”

The facility is nearly fully staffed at 33 employees, but Stopko said the business has been hit during the past year by industry-wide supply chain issues and worker shortages. To address those concerns, orders are expedited when possible, and the company has raised its starting pay at least three times since opening.

Centro originally purchased the Cascade site with plans to expand its footprint beyond initial staffing levels but now is focused on retaining and honing its staff and opening another similarly sized facility in Hampton, Iowa, over concern it would be too difficult to find additional staffing in the Cascade area.

“Our strategic plan has shifted a bit, and we’re targeting smaller communities where we might only get 30 to 40 employees,” Stopko said. “If we can get more workers, great. But you know we can have the biggest building and all the equipment, but if we don’t have the people to run it, it doesn’t make any sense (to expand).”

In addition to pay increases, Stopko said, the company also offers an educational reimbursement program for employees to gain more experience in the field. Centro also tries to offer employees several opportunities for career advancement and strives to create an environment where people truly want to come into work every day.

“It’s close to home, and it’s a job,” said finisher Catherine Feckers, of Wyoming, Iowa, who works trimming up the different plastic pieces once they are removed from the mold. “But the people here are great. It’s always, ‘Oh, do you need this?’ or, ‘Oh, do you need help with that?’ It’s great.”

Moving forward, the focus at the Cascade site will be on honing the skills and efficiency of the staff. The longest working staff member has been there just more than a year, Stopko said, meaning there’s plenty of room for growth.

“Right now, we’re focusing on our metrics and goals to make sure we’re successful,” he said. “We look at our scrap percentage, downtime and (quality rejections) … to satisfy our customer and remain profitable.”

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