Industry assistance grows local economies


Editor's note: This feature is the fifth in news service's 2024 Innovation at Work series of stories, photos and videos that highlight economic development and the impact of Iowa State's contributions across the state. A new entry will post every Tuesday through April 23.



Stellar Industries started with three employees and an idea. With support from CIRAS, the Garner-based company has grown to more than 800 employees with an extensive product line. Photo by Dave Olson.

Lunch break is ending and the rhythms of the manufacturing floor at Stellar Industries begin to pick up as forklifts deliver materials from one point of assembly to the next and welding sparks illuminate the frames of service truck bodies.

The individual rhythms are distinct and yet flow together in a way that maximizes efficiencies and ultimately contributes to Stellar's double-digit growth year-over-year for the past two decades. Stellar president David Zrostlik credits a long relationship with Iowa State's Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) for helping orchestrate the rhythm of the company's success.

"Stellar was founded in 1990 with three employees. It was an idea. There were no designs, just a thought in our designer's head about how to build a hooklift," Zrostlik said. "CIRAS was very instrumental in making sure that those very first products that we designed and built at Stellar Industries in the early '90s were solid products that we could be proud of years down the road."

Nearly 35 years later, the Garner-based company has grown from that initial idea for a hooklift to a global manufacturer of mechanic trucks, service cranes, hooklifts, tire service trucks, trailers and service truck accessories. Zrostlik said whenever they have questions about workforce issues, international sales or production flow, no matter the topic, CIRAS is always there with an answer.

"We wouldn't have made the strides and the growth we have today without the guidance from CIRAS," Zrostlik said.

Proven track record

The value of working with CIRAS is reflected in Stellar's growth, but it also extends beyond the company's bottom line. CIRAS was created in 1963 to improve the quality of life in Iowa by supporting business and industry and in turn helping communities grow and prosper. Over the past six decades that mission has not changed.


Iowa business turns to CIRAS for resources it needs to grow.

"We're here to make industry better through research, education and technical assistance and over 60 years we have built a track record of making things better," said CIRAS director Mike O'Donnell. "Making a difference for a manufacturer, makes a difference for the entire community."

That's especially true in rural Iowa, where 26% of all jobs are in manufacturing, O'Donnell said. Over the past five years, CIRAS and its partners have helped more than 4,600 businesses across Iowa add or retain more than 38,000 jobs, creating an economic impact of more than $3.1 billion.

In the Mitchell County town of Osage, the ripple effect of that economic impact is felt by local schools, community organizations and visitors to a 34-acre prairie park. Jiri-Rita Prairie Park was developed by Valent BioSciences, a global manufacturer of biorational products, with support from CIRAS. Valent BioSciences worked with a small team of Iowa State students in agricultural and biosystems engineering to restore the prairie as a native habitat for wildlife and incorporate a walking path for community members.

"It was a great experience. The students provided us with an idea for a trail map to maximize the space, and had great ideas for trees and other plants that would do well in the prairie," said Zoe Dinges, food safety coordinator for Valent BioSciences. "It was fantastic to see how they helped us with our prairie and how the work contributed to their final project."

Valent BioSciences, which opened its Osage manufacturing plant in 2014, recently completed an expansion to meet the increasing demand for its microbial insecticides and nematicides often used on fruit and vegetable farms as an alternative or complement to conventional pesticides. The facility employs more than 120 people, contributes millions to the local economy annually and utilizes raw materials from Iowa suppliers.

Facility manager Brian Lynch said the prairie provides an ideal plot for Valent BioSciences to collaborate with Iowa State agronomists analyzing soil samples and testing new products as part of an ongoing research initiative facilitated by CIRAS. Lynch said ISU researchers also helped Valent BioSciences measure the value of a byproduct from its manufacturing plant that Iowa farmers can use as a fertilizer alternative.

"The solids in the byproduct are loaded with nutrients, and we knew it was valuable," Lynch said. "Rather than putting it in a landfill, we're working with area farmers to apply to their fields. The research from Iowa State provided validation of the benefit. By using the byproduct on a field for two years, yields increased by 24 bushels an acre."



Iowa State postdoc Meyer Bohn (front right), undergraduate research assistant Sabrina Becker (left) and Ph.D. student Derrick Platero (center) collect soil samples at Jiri-Rita Prairie Park in Osage. Photo courtesy of Valent BioSciences.

Network of experts

Over 60 years, CIRAS has built a vast network of partnerships with Iowa State faculty and staff, Iowa-based companies and economic groups along with federal extension and accelerator programs. This network supports the nearly two dozen programs and services that CIRAS offers, including the Iowa Lean Consortium.

The strength of the consortium is driven by its member businesses and industries across the state. Together, they explore strategies and best practices for continuous improvement within their organizations.

Agri-Industrial Plastics, a manufacturer of large-scale industrial parts in Fairfield, is a member. Chris Meyers, director of quality and continuous improvement at Agri-Industrial, said the consortium provides tremendous value including opportunities for training, facility tours and networking.

"A lot of manufacturing companies don't have enormous continuous improvement networks, so it's great to have these connections," Meyer said. "There are opportunities to learn from one another. We're not competing and we're all willing to help."

Lessons learned boost engagement

Out on the plant floor, Agri-Industrial now shares daily updates on safety and customer returns with employees. The information is posted on the company's performance action center board -- a tool that was implemented following a consortium training session at Pella Corp. The real-time data motivates employees and increases engagement.

"A lot of the benefit CIRAS provides is intangible," said Geoff Ward, director of engineering and strategy at Agri-Industrial. "On some projects, we bring ideas out to the plant floor to show our operations team solutions to make their jobs easier. That helps morale and communication -- they know we're listening and trying to improve the process."

Like many Iowa manufacturers, Agri-Industrial works with Iowa State researchers on developing prototypes and testing new design concepts. Lori Schaefer-Weaton, president of Agri-Industrial, said this work wouldn't be possible without the connections made through CIRAS.

"Our team is busy with day-to-day customer projects, and to have concentrated time for R&D is challenging. To have an outside resource help move a project along has a great deal of value," Schaefer-Weaton said. "CIRAS brings a different perspective. It's hard to challenge yourself to try something different and that is a huge part of the value CIRAS provides."

CIRAS mission still matters

To remain relevant, O'Donnell said CIRAS constantly is evolving to address the needs of manufacturers and prepare them for the future. In 1967, that meant providing a computer service to help industry discover publications based on key words. In 1981, it was helping companies understand pricing strategies in response to global competition.

Today, workforce challenges are a top priority. For some companies, that means improving efforts to recruit and retain employees, for others it's automation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. O'Donnell said that's true for every CIRAS project -- it all depends on the client.

"Our job is to understand the problem, work on a solution and make sure it gets embedded in the business and works for the long-run," O'Donnell said. "We ask a lot of questions throughout the process and sometimes the answer is not to do something, and that's OK."

For example, O'Donnell shared a story of a company considering the purchase of a 3D printer. After understanding the company's needs and the potential for return, CIRAS recommended outsourcing the service rather than making an investment that wouldn't yield a positive return.

It's that type of guidance Iowa manufacturers have come to depend on from CIRAS. It's also knowing they have a trusted partner to help their companies grow and develop innovative solutions when challenges arise.

"It is amazing to have the resources CIRAS offers for Stellar Industries and other manufacturers like us throughout the state," Zrostlik said. "Especially for an entrepreneurial enterprise just starting up, you're always looking at how to do this or how to do that. CIRAS is the one resource statewide that can provide that help for startup companies or mature companies like Stellar."