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How Reinke Manufacturing Is Shaping the Future of Robotics in Agriculture

Reinke Manufacturing, based in Deshler, Nebraska, isn’t afraid to step outside the box to develop a skilled workforce capable of handling the sophisticated technology that is part of the irrigation system company’s day-to-day.

That is as true today as it was 10 years ago when company leadership recognized the need to hire employees trained in welding and realized they could cultivate that skill by investing in the local community.

Russ Reinke, first vice president of Reinke Manufacturing, recalled, “We set up a program in partnership with the district public schools and set up a lab with eight welders. We put in state-of-the-art welding equipment and provided a trainer, an instructor who works for us full-time, and started up the welding program.”

Robots at Reinke

The success of the welding partnership sparked another idea. “We said ‘boy, it would sure be nice to take that a step further and be able to get some kids to learn more about the robotics side of things because the welding here at the plant has become roboticized,’” explains Reinke.

There are currently 19 robots that weld product at Reinke. They are critical in keeping the company efficient and competitive in the marketplace.

Reinke recognizes the integration of technology and its broad impact. “The farm equipment/farm industry is becoming more technical all the time and is going at a pretty fast pace, so we have to keep up with that. There’s so much opportunity to use technology to make it easier for the farmers to do their job with less labor, quicker, faster, making better decisions, and hopefully improve their bottom line.”

The Reinke irrigation systems feature radio telemetry, hands-free operation, remote control, and data gathering from various points across the fields.

Russ Reinke has been known to say his company’s irrigation systems are just like big robots themselves. “They run by themselves, either with a few buttons or you can run them with your phone or push buttons remotely. They are in essence a big robot out there doing what they’re told; they’ll record back and tell you what they just got done doing. You can be halfway around the world – I remember one time when I was over in China and I was getting reports on my phone telling me what my pivots were doing.”

Sponsoring the Electrogators

As the industry and equipment advances, the opportunity for creativity and innovation grows; from designing, to building, to servicing irrigation systems. Reinke is once again looking ahead at the need for a workforce prepared and driven to take on that challenge.

In 2017, Russ Reinke was approached by members of FIRST Tech Challenge from Grand Island, Nebraska, about forming a new team in Deshler.

FIRST Tech Challenge is a global competition that requires student teams to build a working robot with a defined set of rules and compete in a scrimmage. Over 1,400 teams from more than 70 countries are involved.

Sponsoring a local team was the perfect solution to engage the younger generation in the community – the future workforce – who has little fear of technology, thanks to the internet, video games, and phones.

Reinke recruited employee volunteers to serve as coaches and mentors to the students of the new team, dubbed the Electrogators. Now in its second year, the partnership has taken off.

Electrogators Compete

Hal Hockersmith, electrical engineer for Reinke Manufacturing, has been a coach to the Electrogators team since the beginning.

Students on the team are: Caleb Jalias, Cameron Czekai, Chloe Mosier, Landon Schoneweis, Luke Reinke, and Mira Eschelman; representing all grades from freshman to senior. Hockersmith works with two or three of the students at any given time, particularly on programming the software behind the robot, and connecting the students to resources at Reinke for all other components of the challenge.

“Students work with machinists to modify parts to help put together the robot, they work with marketing folks, tech services for the project management of building the robot, and me as a programmer. We have even gone over to one of the brother companies (to Reinke Manufacturing) to utilize water jet technology to cut some parts.”

In addition to building a robot, student teams can prepare outreach (sales) strategy, finance plans, marketing, web development, social media, and quality assurance documentation.

During competition, the team will participate in at least nine matches to qualify for finals. The Electrogators will also be judged in two separate instances on their project management and documentation, akin to an “engineering notebook.”

According to Hockersmith, “The judges will come by our standby area, and that’s where we’re hoping to put together a really nice presentation booth. The judges come by to ask another set of questions such as how we built the robot, how we interact with other teams, how we’re doing scouting, if we want to work with other teams, and where we can find people who complement our robot’s abilities.”

The Future is Bright

To Russ Reinke, the success of this partnership has been eye-opening and has become even bigger than expected at the outset. “We’re looking at how to take this one step further into the school like we did with the welding program, so this year we applied for a grant through the Youth Initiatives Program and we were awarded that. It allows us to further expand our training and opportunities for the kids in the STEM skills, which rolls right into robotics.”

For both Reinke and Hockersmith, this is a unique opportunity for the students to realize the potential in skilled trade anywhere.

“We’re encouraging kids in small-town America to think about tech careers and also realize that tech exists in small towns. If we can foster some interest, help kids realize that Reinke is doing a lot of the exact same innovative things – and if you’re having fun at that, there’s a chance you could come back to where you grew up and continue to do things that you love in an environment that you’re comfortable with,” says Hockersmith.

And not only does it support the students’ development, but the employees who volunteer their expertise and time have the chance to “act like kids again” and expand their teaching base. There is also a domino effect in that those who are directly involved often go back to others in their department and encourage others to participate and guide the students as well.

How the Students Have Grown

Jennifer Schnakenberg, parent to one of the students on the Electrogators team, reflects on the skills the students have gained. “The kids have run with the program. They can reach out for help to expand their knowledge; they understand how to approach somebody and ask for help. Each one of them has learned public speaking skills because they are judged on it as part of the competition. They have also learned so much because they’ve changed roles on the team each year. There is no stopping this group of kids.”

The real-life experience will carry forward through the rest of high school, college, and especially as they enter the workforce.

“Everybody likes robots,” says Hockersmith. “But I think it really opened the kids’ eyes to what goes on in the real world. They realized the kind of work it takes to get things going, the different steps of a process, how to take a problem and break it down, to define what parts are still missing, what we need to do, and then go from there and actually get things finished.”

Competition Time

The Electrogators competed at the Nebraska FIRST Tech Challenge Championship in February and took home the “Industry Connect Award,” earned because of the team’s work and relationship with Reinke as a sponsor and mentor company.

The students were also named the first runner-up for the Collins Aerospace Innovate Award, given in recognition of the teams’ ingenuity and inventiveness with regard to the robot’s design.

Worlds Results

The Electrogators competed at the Worlds competition in Detroit, Michigan, April 24-27. After their first qualifying round on day one, the team and their robot (affectionately named Rover) ranked 31 against 80 other teams. Over the next two days of competition, the team won three matches and finished strong with a 49th-place ranking in their subdivision.

Stan Reinke, coach of the Electrogators, comments, "We're a brand new team, so getting to Worlds was an accomplishment." He noted the students' collaboration with other robotics teams by sharing tools and competing together, and the growth in their confidence throughout matches and presentations.

While next year's competition will call for an entirely unique robot with different functional requirements, the returning students will lean on their experiences working with Reinke Manufacturing and competing against impressive robots to become a more organized team ready to tackle the next challenge.

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