Blue sparks fly as a robot welds on a recent workday at Caterpillar's road grader plant in North Little Rock. The robot (which, somewhat disappointingly, looks nothing like the humanoid "Danger, Will Robinson" robot of TV's "Lost in Space" or C-3PO and R2-D2 of "Star Wars" fame) is made of metal and can withstand temperatures far higher than any flesh-and-blood worker can endure.
And though the term "robot" alone signifies high tech, the entire $140 million facility can be seen as what Paul Rivera, general manager of the plant, calls a "huge investment in technology."
"Caterpillar in and of itself last year spent $2.3 billion on research and development, and that number is just going to go up this year," Rivera Said.
Caterpillar Inc., based in Peoria, Ill., can afford the $2.3 billions. The world's largest manufacturer of heavy equipment reported record sales and revenue in 2011 of $60.14 billion, an increase of 41 percent over the $42.6 billion it reported in 2010. Profit in 2011 was $4.9 billion, an increase of 83 percent compared with $2.7 billion in 2010.
In its January 26 earning release, the company noted that it added 14,000 employees in 2011, with 6,500 of those in the United States. It now has about 150,000 workers worldwide.
Caterpillar, considered bellwether of global economic conditions, forecasts a strong performance this year as well. "We're expecting 2012 to be another year of good growth," Caterpillar Chief Executive Doug Oberhelman said in the earnings releases. "We have to be prepared for recovery in the developed world beyond 2012 and continued growth in emerging markets."
Caterpillar's robust showing has helped propel expansion as in the North Little Rock plan, which currently employs 550 and Rivera said, plans to add 125 by the fourth quarter of this year. That would be 75 more employees than the 600 company originally had forecast when it and state economic development officials announced in early 2009 that Caterpillar was opening the road grader facility in the former Deluxe Video site.
The pay for non-salaried workers in North Little Rock ranges from $15 to about $22 an hour and will average $17 per hour as of April 1, the company said.
"The plant is at about 50 percent capacity", Rivera said. "Full capacity means 900 employees", he said, which he predicted would be reached at the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014 "if market demand holds up for our products. All indications are that it will."
"About 40 to 45 percent of everything we produce here gets shipped overseas, so I am the worldwide source for 14M motor graders and 16M motor graders, which are the two largest models," Rivera said. He added, "A lot of those go into the mining industry, which with commodity prices as high as they are is very lucrative right now. We're selling a lot of big motor graders around the world."
The boom in mining helped prompt the building of the North Little Rock plant, Rivera said. "The focus of moving here was to make capacity at the Decatur, Ill., facility [to build] mining trucks.