Guest Column with Dwain Hebda: July 2023

Technology in Manufacturing


How technology is transforming legacy manufacturing

By Dwain Hebda

Senior Editor, ITArkansas Magazine

WHEN PEOPLE IMAGINE being in a rewarding tech career, chances are they picture themselves in a variety of work settings: an office, coworking space, or lab where they spend their time bootstrapping a startup, developing a cutting-edge app, or writing miles of code for a national Internet or software company.  

It’s a pretty good bet they don’t see themselves in a steel mill, especially one tucked into the tranquil countryside of northeastern Arkansas. But attitudes are changing in this part of the world as the steel industry has steadily grown its presence in Arkansas. And with that presence, the number of technology-forward jobs has also multiplied.

“Steel is no longer the commodity that people picture it as—not anymore,” says Dan Brown, senior vice president of advanced technology steelmaking and COO of Big River Steel Works in Osceola. “Steel has become very, very high tech as customer requirements have become more detailed and precise year after year. As a result, steelmaking is very technical all the way around. We have a lot of positions where people are surrounded by computers, servers, technology, screens, all kinds of tools that tell them every single second of the day what’s going on regarding hydraulics, electronics, and production within the operation.” 

Surprised? You’re probably not alone. As one of the foundational heavy industries in American manufacturing history, steel production evokes images of archaic Rust Belt factories, heavily reliant on unskilled manual labor in a hot, dirty and dangerous environment. But as the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Today’s steel mills are safer, more comfortable, and more efficient than ever, and that’s directly attributable to the growth of technology in all areas of operations. “Steel is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and technology allows us to save on labor and other costs across the plant and the company while still taking care of our customers,” Brown says. “As an example, we have an automated warehouse that we got up and running probably two years ago. It’s all run by automated cranes that scan everything. They know where the coils are going from one production line to the next, and they know where shipments of coils are headed.”  

Technology is everywhere throughout the Big River plant, especially in the areas of safety—what Brown calls the company’s number-one priority. “We have production lines now where if you have a hazard, such as gears turning or if you break a laser plane, technology will shut the production line down so you can’t get hurt. That never existed years ago.

“Another example: We operate in northeast Arkansas in the middle of summer working around molten steel and hot coils. Heat exhaustion among our employees is something we take very seriously. So after a trial last year, we’ve implemented wearable technology. Employees’ information goes on a computer screen and the manager of that line can watch and see that Joe needs to drink water, or he looks like he might be having trouble out there, or his diagnostics are going down.” 


STEELMAKING HAS BEEN present in The Natural State for about 30 years but has accelerated in recent years to become the center of steel manufacturing in the United States. Though relatively new to the area, U.S. Steel has been a major player in Arkansas’s steel industry, purchasing Big River Steel in two purchase installments in 2019 and 2020.  

In January 2022, the company upped the ante with the announcement that it would be building a second mill that solidified the company’s commitment to its Arkansas operation in a major way. Dubbed “the steel mill of the future” during groundbreaking ceremonies, the forthcoming $3 billion mega mill will feature two electric arc furnaces with three million tons per year of advanced steelmaking capability, a state-of-the-art endless casting and rolling line, and advanced finishing capabilities.  

When completed, the mill will be the most advanced in North America and is the largest private project both in the state’s history and in the 122-year history of U.S. Steel itself. Along with other companies in the area, the new mills will further solidify Arkansas as the epicenter for the domestic steel industry. U.S. Steel’s new plant will also employ 900 people, nearly all of those roles involving working with some sort of advanced technology.  

“There is technology and diagnostics so you can monitor equipment 24/7, every second of the day,” Brown says. “It can tell you when pressures are building up. It can tell you when something looks different within the system or to keep an eye on it. These diagnostics, from the maintenance and reliability standpoint, help you make equipment last longer, make parts last longer, avoid taking downtime.” 

Operating and maintaining this advanced equipment demands a different skillset from employees than in generations past. U.S. Steel has worked with a local community college to help develop a curriculum that’s producing the next generation of steelworkers, of which technical savvy will be a major attribute. “We have training programs and partnerships with Arkansas Northeastern College that are totally different than what people went through years ago,” Brown says. “These training programs involve a lot of diagnostics, analyzing data, IT information. Employees today have to have a skillset that’s applicable to using a computer and doing different diagnostics.  It’s a very, very different industry than it was years ago, and it changes constantly. You can’t stand still in this industry; to compete and get better, you have to keep moving and moving and moving.”