Assessment: Iowa Mfg Need Help with Tech, Strategy

Iowa manufacturers have been slow to take proven steps toward improving their businesses—and now face a widening technology gap and workforce challenges that are placing increasing pressure on smaller companies, according to a recent CIRAS review of the state of Iowa manufacturing.

CIRAS’ 2017–2018 Iowa Manufacturing Needs Assessment Report, a document based on comments derived from six public forums and a survey of leaders at 228 manufacturers across Iowa, shows Iowa companies continuing to sort themselves onto one side or another of a widening profitability gap.

A majority of manufacturers responding to the survey (54 percent) reported a return on sales of less than 10 percent—including many small companies that slipped to a loss since the last such survey was taken. However, 13 percent of the survey respondents reported a return on sales of 20 percent or higher.

According to the report, “this demonstrates that there is a significant group of manufacturers that create and sell highvalue products.”

“One of the things we brought out through those forums is that there are companies out there that are figuring this stuff out,” said Mike O’Donnell, director of CIRAS’ Manufacturing Extension Partnership. “It’s not easy, but they’re making good progress.”

According to the Needs Assessment, most Iowa manufacturers are not implementing next-generation technologies. Iowa companies face a growing need for technical support when it comes to advanced manufacturing engineering and automation, and many firms are significantly behind in handling basic digital manufacturing technologies.

Other findings in the survey include significant concerns by Iowa manufacturers about looming threats tied to workforce needs and the growing cost of health insurance. However, despite the perceived severity of those problems, many forum participants expressed that they were simply too busy to try new approaches to solving them. Concerned companies reported surprisingly low rates of adopting tools for dealing with those problems—tools such as wellness programs, productivity practices, and automation.

According to the report, Iowans may be stuck in old and no-longer-productive habits when it comes to tackling complicated issues: “The ‘heads down,’ hard work approach that kept manufacturers in business over the previous 15 years is [now] an impediment to their ability to solve these problems.”

CIRAS is using results from this assessment to map our own strategy for the services we’ll be providing in 2018 and beyond. This year includes, among other things, a focus on educating Iowans about digital manufacturing, cyber security, and how to find global markets for their products. Other CIRAS events will share information about artificial intelligence, water technologies, and attracting global talent to Iowa manufacturing.


> For more information, read the full version of the Needs Assessment at or contact CIRAS program manager Mike O’Donnell at or 515-509-4379.