Combining new software with mechanical machines could be the future of the agriculture industry, especially with the shortage of workers in that industry — and that's just what a local manufacturing (and invention) company is doing.
GK Machine, a heavy equipment manufacturer based in Donald, won the national Manufacturing Leadership award this year, beating out companies in the Enterprise Technology category that included Ford Motor Company, Cisco Systems and IBM Corp.
Last week, representatives flew out to the conference to collect their honorable trophy.
The Frost & Sullivan Manufacturing Leadership Awards have honored hundreds of innovative manufacturing companies from around the world across 14 categories, evaluated and scored by an expert panel of judges.
Gary Grossen, CEO, has grown GK from himself and his brother in a garage over forty years to 170 employees. He said the main difference between now and then is that he only gets two hours of sleep.
"I start about 2 a.m.," Grossen said. "I read emails a little bit, doing research to try to figure out the next invention. I probably roll into the shop around 7 a.m., then walk the floors."
He has 10,000 steps logged on his Fitbit by noon.
"We're constantly looking at new ideas, new products to experiment with the tech and get the feel of how the equipment is," Grossen said. "I started in high school. I was always a tinkerer, it comes easy for me. Some products, we get a little ahead of our time."
The software that won GK the award, called Leadman Suite, is administrative and organizational: upon arriving at work, employees scan themselves in (there's no keyboard, so there are no mistakes). The software tells the employee what project they should be working on today, based on each person's certifications and skills.
"Our problem is we do a lot of variety — we run the place from 1,400 to 1,800 jobs on the floor at a time. The variety is the challenge," Grossen said. "That's why we have software control all the moving parts on the floor — probably hundreds of thousands of parts."
The software keeps track of hundreds of projects going on simultaneously across multiple warehouses, who's best suited to them if the most experiences person is on vacation, where thousands of pieces and parts are located and how long each job should take.
He invented it when he had about 300 jobs running at a time, and couldn't find software that could keep track of it all without crashing.
"One system couldn't even run four timeclocks. It kept crashing. We figured we could do something better," Grossen said. "Everything on the floor is moving live, so all the data coming back is called instantly — you can just go look on the screen."
Custom-made computers across the work areas show supervisors at a glance who is good on time, on lunch, or running late on getting their job done — and it's color-coded. The computers in the warehouses are specially made to be resistant to dust from the painting, welding and tool work going on around it.
"We built our own computers out on the floor because of the environment of dirt and dust," Grossen said. "It's lengthy to explain, it does justification, payroll, tracking parts on the floor and times everything by the second moving through the floor."
GK has been working on the software for going on six years. It tracks all the data, including how long a job should take, based on past jobs.
In the old days, employees who had questions about their jobs had to track down their supervisors. Now, they scan in, and the supervisor comes to them, saving time and increasing efficiency.
After nearly six years working on the software, GK is ready to launch it to the public this year.
GK manufactures everything to do with agriculture, and more: hazelnut harvesters, controlled shade or sunlight greenhouses and sod cutters — they produce one sod cutter every six days. Fun fact: Oregon provided all the sod for the Olympics — and this is the machine that cut it.
The Autobag is another GK invention.
"It bags and counts towels for hotels. It used to be 10 people's jobs, now it's one with a machine," said Connie Bradley, public relations. "These are the crazy things we invent."
The receiving department logs and scans every part and piece. People in that department wheel carts full of pieces to the work rooms and stock the shops. A quick scan shows a worker exactly where and how many pieces there are.
"The old-fashioned way is a worker would go to the parts department," Bradley said. "Now, they don't ever have to look for a part."
The machine shop uses high-tech computer programs to take raw steel and produce perfectly measured tubes or parts.
A laser cutter can cut through eight-inch steel in six seconds — GK has three lasers running all the time.
"Everyone assumes you're sitting here on a machine, but you're really sitting here on a computer," Bradley said.
The 14 engineers on staff have cubicles on a second floor up behind the main shop where farmers come stock up. They draw parts in 3D, and send the renderings to the machine workers down in the shops.
Down in the shops, there is a station with tools and machines for nearly every employee.
Omega Morgan and Emmert International are both big clients. GK Machine manufactured the new pieces of the Sellwood Bridge, which both of those two other companies worked on.
"It's funny — we grew the company a year ago quite substantially large, and our accountant goes, you didn't add any administrative jobs?" Grossen said. "No, we put computers in."
Bradley said the accountant couldn't believe it when they grew 30 percent without adding administrative positions to support the growth. But the new software is handling that.
VR in ag's future
"We try to be the leader, not the follower," Grossen said.
Grossen picked up another award for a blueberry harvester that can pick up to 450 acres a day — up from 100 without the innovation.
"Anything GK can invent to help a farmer speed up the process," Bradley said. "We're saving him time and labor, which is money."
Grossen said he has a vision for the future — but can't tell us, yet.
"More automation," Grossen said vaguely. "Virtually reality — yesterday we played with that a little bit — what we're trying to do with it is train people how to run a piece of equipment, so you can't destroy a piece of equipment with this tech because it's all in the virtual world."
GK can use VR to train farmers in the future, without having to send anyone out. Practicing handling heavy equipment in VR also increases safety.
"A lot of it is going to be autonomous work without a driver," Grossen said. "Lots of machines now, you don't need a driver in them — it's a liability."