How Automation Has Come To Fargo

Written by: Andrew Jason

It’s impossible to create a fully autonomous farm without having any farmland. Well, thanks to Kevin Biffert, President of Fargo Automation, there are 40 acres right off I-29 to create the farm of the future. He is donating the land to make the Grand Farm a possibility.

However, Biffert’s involvement with automation in Fargo doesn’t start and end with the donation of the land. In fact, Bi ert was really the one who helped prove that Fargo- Moorhead is ripe for automation. Here are the takeaways from our conversation with him about why Fargo is the ripe spot for Grand Farm, what the Grand Farm will look like and where we’re going as a community in terms of automation.

1. How he decided to launch an automation company

Biffert started his career working at 3M in Wahpeton, N.D. In 1996, they went through some downsizing and that’s when Bi ert started Fargo Automation. It was during his time at 3M that he saw how automation is affecting companies all around the world. The company now creates automated packing machines for pharmaceutical companies.

“When I was working at 3M, I saw that automation was assisting companies to increase their productivity. If they can increase their productivity, every place that I’ve ever been, they don’t get rid of the people. They gain people because they’re more productive or they’re meeting a niche.

“I noticed that speeds were getting so fast that you couldn’t get enough people to do it. In our syringe line, we’re up over 1,000 per minute. No human can deal with that.”

“All of our customers are pharmaceutical companies and they want to keep their prices down so they can sell more to more people. They want to serve as many people as they can. That’s their goal.”

2. How he proved Fargo was ripe for automation

Fargo Automation was almost like a proof of concept that Fargo could be a spot for automation to thrive. Thanks to the talent coming out of the universities and the hard work ethos that persists here, the main reason Fargo Automation was able to grow so rapidly was because of the people.

“Early on when I started the company, I wanted to be near a university or university system. Today, almost every student comes from the university system, whether it’s mechanical, a programmer or technicians. It’s more of a high-tech industry that’s making the rest of the economy better.

“At some point, you’re not going to make your own sandwich. I can guarantee you that. It’s just a matter of when it is justi ed. Justi cation usually comes when there’s technology to allow it… One thing that I’ve found is that if it’s easier, faster, quicker and broader, it’s going to sell.”

3. How automation is shaping future jobs

There’s a report from Northwestern University that we’ve cited already in
this magazine that says that automation will impact 63.29 percent of the Fargo-Moorhead population. However, Bi ert doesn’t believe that jobs being affected by automation leads to people being laid off. In fact, a good case study is Giants Snacks in Wahpeton, N.D. Tom Spiekermeier, the operations manager, said that they’ve never laid anybody o because of automation.

“What happens is that companies become so good at what they’re doing, they actually have to serve more people like Giants Snacks. The biggest plant that we do pharmaceutical work is in Columbus, Nebraska and that plant has grown every year since I’ve been working with them for 18 years. They want to serve a wider market.
If they can keep their prices in check and also produce the stu at really high quality, they become very competitive in the market. They want to do things very productively. All these companies do.”

4. How the workforce needs to adapt to these jobs

While there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to automation and how much of an effect it will have on jobs, the one certain thing is that the jobs of tomorrow will look different than the jobs of today. This is no different than what history has proven over and over. Piano tuners jobs were replaced as record players became more prevalent and people bought fewer pianos. Bowling alley pinsetters have been replaced with automatic machines. The examples go on and on. While jobs are becoming more high tech, this is also affecting how Fargo Automation treats their employees.

“Compared to other manufacturers in the area, we’re looking for a different skill set,” said Jessica Petrick, the human resources manager for Fargo Automation. “We are looking for people who aren’t afraid of a non-structured environment in terms of that they’re not coming to the same spot, doing the same activities. For instance, our technicians do a variety of things. They don’t just do assembly of the same component every day. They do mechanical, electrical, troubleshooting and customer interaction. They do the whole scope instead of just, ‘I’m an expert in just this one thing.’

“We did this because we had to be lean. If you have one person who can do all things, you don’t have to hire three people to do each of those things.”

5. How the universities play an important role in our community

In fall 2018, there were 25,874 students enrolled in one of the eight universities or colleges in Fargo-Moorhead. That higher education is playing a crucial
role in the jobs of tomorrow. Whether it’s technical research or engineering work that’s coming out of NDSU or diesel mechanics coming from M State, the education being provided by these colleges is absolutely crucial. However, it’s not only the colleges that are doing the education. Students are able to learn in more ways than ever before.

“We hire a lot of students,” said Biffert. “We maybe have 10 percent of students (11-13 employees) who are here and they’re learning too. They don’t all stay here but it’s an atmosphere where they can engage with people who have been here full-time for five to 10 years. What I hear from a lot of the students is that they get to engage with a lot of the students that have already done this so they can learn and jump up to their next level.

“We also have some people who just learned it at home and come with the skill. They learned it on YouTube. We have people who come here with no degree and they know more than our people. … It’s hard to gauge one person. I think people are figuring it out themselves through different methods.”

6. How he got involved in Grand Farm

Fargo Automation is quickly growing. In the next year, they’re hoping to add 30-40 employees, which is about a 50 percent increase in the number of employees. They’re simply outgrowing their space. After Bi ert talked with Greg Tehven, the Executive Director of Emerging Prairie, Bi ert donated 40 acres of his own farmland for Grand Farm. Fargo Automation will be opening a plant there and will have their two locations for a while.

“Greg Tehven is a very good talker. They want to farm. Well, I have farmland and a whole bunch of open space. What they want to do is mold themselves with the rest of the companies and universities to create this tech center where you can train people quickly and get them up to speed so if you have somebody with these certain skills, they can come in and get trained. That’s the whole idea.

“If you look at the steering committee, we have a bunch of different people with different ideas about what the Grand Farm is. I told them not to forget anything because it could be cattle, sheep, animals or grains. Barry Batcheller may be like, “I want 700 bushels of corn.” Everybody has a different idea of what that means.

“The whole idea is to have a farm, building and tech center but be able to go out and test your product right there on the farm. Or go out and have a self-driving vehicle that can use a frontage road, mark it o and say, ‘It’s got to drive back and forth 100,000 times before we say it’s good.’ It’s stuff like that that’s driving all of this.”

“As the vision of Grand Farm started to come together, we imagined getting the actual farm to use would be one of the most challenging steps,” said Greg Tehven, Executive Director of Emerging Prairie. “However, after Kevin and his wife Stacy heard of the vision, their generous contribution has been a key catalyst to the speed in which we’ve been able to operate. Their bold philanthropy will be one of the key elements in the ultimate success of the project.”

7. How the Grand Farm is more than a farm

One of the inspirations for Grand Farm from a design perspective is Epcot Center in Orlando. The Grand Farm Steering Committee wants to create something that will have good visibility o the interstate. However, the idea of Grand Farm extends far beyond just the actual farm.

“I think it’s more than a theme park. Greg says the next president is going to come and speak there. We’ll see. His whole thing is that he wants something that attracts someone to understand that it’s not just about farming. It’s bigger than that. It’s about autonomy and doing things in a way that’s improving peoples’ lives and improves the lives of everybody.

“If you can get your drugs a little cheaper or widespread worldwide, that improves people’s lives. It’s the same thing with agriculture. If you can get the grain to people and the people aren’t starving to death, you can see how much that’s helped the world already.”

8. How close are we to a fully automated farm

Full automation on the farm is still years away, but on May 8
of this year, Sabanto, a farming as a service company out of Iowa, will be planting the eld autonomously so automation is already here to a certain extent in agriculture. However, full automation involves much more than just planting the eld.

“That’s just one piece of it. For example, that’s not hauling the grain. We’re talking one small piece of what can happen. It’s just something to show that
it’s affordable. The biggest challenge is safety. Whatever happens in the self-driving car is going to happen in the self- driving tractor, grain hauler and all that. I just don’t know what that is and I don’t think many people do.”

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