NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) - Southwest Steel Processing has been around since 2003 and currently employs 49 workers -- several of those 49 were hired since January 1. Southwest Steel Processing has added these new jobs because business is booming and continues to do so.
You can't make steel products without heat and pressure. At the Southwest Steel Forging plant there's lots of both.
And Robots, six robots in the forging part of the plant working with blazing steel cubes and hot forged materials out of the presses. Bruce Ball used to work on the floor of the forge until the robots came when he moved into a small cubicle where he operates robots 1-4. He describes what life on the floor was like.
Ball, "Hot nasty, back breaking work without the robots there. On this part we would have 6 people on the line moving steel from place to place." The exchange point from one press to another for the robots was just outside Ball's booth. Even inside you could feel the heat radiating from the newly formed piece.
The products start with raw steel brought in from Arkansas Steel Associates located right behind the SSP plant. They also pick up the remnant steel from the forging process and recycle it.
Starting with heated metal blocks, 3-story presses turn out parts for rail cars and pipelines and for track laying.
The 8-year-old company did well until 2008 when the bottom fell out of the rail car business.
Mill operator Doug McLaughlin was grinding the edges off a rail car part. "I got laid off for, I don't know, about 6 or 8 months and then when it picked back up I got called back."
In the finishing plant rows of crates were lined up, full of product ready to be shipped out. SSP President Ken Copeland walked me through the rows of crates explaining what each piece was and why there was so much.
Copeland, "The market has increased and is projected for the next few years to be very good, very stable."
During the 2008 downturn the company added the robots in the forging plant costing a few jobs. They used economic development money from the city and county to make the additions.
Copeland, "Intent was not to reduce jobs but in doing so what we did was to increase our ability to handle volume." And as the orders come in new employees were added in January.
Copeland, "Increase in jobs will come with the expanded capabilities of expanded volume and the post forging processes."
At the processing plant, workers machine, grind, package and ship out parts to railcar makers and pipeline companies. And the demand for their products is high.
Southwest is not a big company having only around 50 employees divided into 3 shifts that work 6 days a week as a rule.
Working in the forging plant can make a person hot and dirty. One employee I spoke to said the money was good but it was no fun being there in August.
Considering the many technical jobs in the plant we asked about the new hires. Were all them machinists?
Copeland, "We have some positions that are extremely technical. We have some positions that we consider general labor but even those positions require a considerable amount of training."
For R2 and the rest of the robots, they're just waiting for the humans to catch up.
McLaughlin, "You gotta know something about machines, you just can't walk in here and go to work, you got to be trained."
If the orders keep coming in who knows, maybe more jobs on the horizon.
McLaughlin, "They're going a lot better, a lot better I hope things stay this way."