By Bethany Blankley, The Centre Square

The number of individuals who filed for unemployment benefits last week increased to 742,000, the first increase in five weeks, according to new data published by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The number of people who filed for state unemployment benefits in the week ending Nov. 13 grew by 31,000 from the previous week’s revised level of 711,000, according to the Nov. 19 report.

In October, the U.S. gained 638,000 jobs and the national unemployment rate fell to 6.9 percent compared to the near historic high of a 14.7 percent at the peak during state lockdowns, when weekly jobless claims hit a record 6.9 million in March.

he previous week’s unemployment level was revised up by 2,000 from 709,000 to 711,000. The four-week moving average was 742,000, a decrease of 13,750 from the previous week’s revised average, the department stated in a news release accompanying the data. The previous week’s average was revised up by 500 from 755,250 to 755,750.

The unemployment rate drop “can be attributed in part to the fact that a lot more businesses are open now than were a few months ago, as states have gradually loosened restrictions,” Adam McCann, financial writer at WalletHub, says. “In addition, many people who became unemployed during the COVID-19 crisis were temporarily laid off, and either have already been rehired by their former employers or expect to be eventually.”

According to an analysis of unemployment data by the personal finance website, some state’s employment rates have bounced back more than others.

WalletHub compared all 50 states and the District of Columbia across four key metrics. It reviewed the change in each state’s unemployment for the month of October and compared it to data from October 2019 and January 2020. The analysis also compared continued claims in October 2020 to October 2019 and each state’s overall unemployment rate.

States in which employment rates bounced back the most were Iowa, Nebraska, Vermont, Missouri, South Dakota, Montana, Utah, Minnesota, Alaska and South Carolina.

States whose unemployment numbers were still suffering were Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, New Mexico, New York, California, Louisiana, Nevada and Hawaii.

According to the Department of Labor, the highest insured unemployment rates in the week ending Oct. 31 were in California (8.3), Hawaii (8.3), New Mexico (8.0), Nevada (7.6), Georgia (6.5), Pennsylvania (6.4), Alaska (6.2), Massachusetts (6.2), District of Columbia (6.0), and Illinois (5.7).

The largest increases in initial claims for the week ending Nov. 7 were in Washington (+7,683), California (+5,293), Massachusetts (+3,383), Alabama (+1,704), and Louisiana (+1,626).

The largest decreases were in Georgia (-13,426), Illinois (-6,357), Kentucky (-4,830), Texas (-3,934), and New Jersey (-3,725).

When it comes to having a booming thriving economy nothing is more important than ideas. Innovation leads economic success.

Production levels, efficiencies, etc. only matter once there is an idea of what to produce or how to produce it. New ideas and innovation are critical to keep ahead of competitors —and protecting those ideas in the market place are patents. Not only must individuals have the freedom to create, being able to guarantee ownership of the idea incentivizes the effort, and that is what patents do.

A total of 1,914  patents were filed and granted in Montana between 1975 and 2019, according to a new study recently released by CommercialCafé which drew upon data from the US Patents & Trademark Office,  exploring the importance of US innovation over four decades.

Montana is among the states with the fewest patents awarded. California is the highest.

Most of Montana’s patents were in Chemistry & Metallurgy, totaling 555, most of which were filed by Dr. Lloyd Berg, who holds the most patents in the state. The late Dr. Berg was formerly head of Montana State University’s Chemical Engineering Department.

The most innovative CPC class in Montana was Technical Subjects Covered By Former Uspc, followed by Basic Electric Elements with 430 and 356 patents, respectively.

Textiles & Paper was the least innovative section in the state, with a patent count of 11.

Nationally, the data for the past 44 years shows that highest patent applications falls under Physics, with 1.1 million patents, followed closely by Electricity, with 900,000 patents.

It used to be that most patents in the US were granted by individual inventors or entrepreneurs, but now more are being granted to large companies.

CommercialCafe also looked at patent applicability, which is different than a true count of distinct patents, in that it counts one patent multiple times, one time for each application across a different field of innovation. Fields of innovation refer to what are called “sections” in the cooperative patent classification (CPC) scheme. There are nine CPC sections, each including several “classes.” It is often the case that one patent claims an invention that applies across multiple sections or multiple classes within one section, or combinations of both.

The study states, “Historically, small U.S. businesses and widespread entrepreneurship have driven American innovation. And, over time, the infrastructure of U.S. innovation itself has undergone several stages of progress and adaptation. For instance, during the ‘Golden Age’ of invention — between the late 1800s and mid-1900s when the U.S. led the world’s industrial revolution — innovative activity happened largely outside of the corporate frame. At that time, world-changing ideas were given physical form by individual creators with financial backing from various investors. As the Harvard Business Review noted in a comprehensive 2017 study, the modern corporation research and development model had outweighed individual inventor patents by the middle of the 20th century. Then, by the year 2000, corporate assignees accounted for 80% of patents.”

The five most innovative U.S. corporations to date are IBM, General Electric, Intel, Hewlett Packard and Microsoft. Among the top ten innovators in 2020 are Micron, Texas Instruments, Xerox, etc. It is interesting to track how dramatically corporations leading the pack have changed over a 45 year period, reflecting how dynamic free markets really are. In 1975 only IBM and GE were in the top ten. Others who have come and gone include Westinghouse, US Phillips, DuPont, RCA Corp, Caterpillar, Ciba-Geigy, Dow, Bell Labs, Motorola, Kodak, Qualcomm.

The five most innovative states to date are California, New York, Texas, Illinois and New Jersey. In particular, a total of 731,705 U.S.-based assignee patents were filed and granted in California between 1975 and 2019, which puts the Golden State in the lead for patenting activity.

Patent activity in the US peaked in 2013, when 144,072 patents were granted — the most in a single year.

About 51% of patents that were granted in the U.S., between 1975 and 2019, have U.S.-based assignees, amounting to 3,331,802 claimed inventions.

The highest patent applicability to date falls under physics (1.1 million patents). Within this field, innovation in computing and information storage has contributed significantly to increases in patent activity in recent years.

Regardless of the originator innovation has had a positive influence on economic growth. The study unveils “a strong positive correlation between patenting activity and gross domestic product per capita at the state level.”

That means, states the study document, “securing economic growth depends on investing in dreams of progress. As such, it’s reasonable to assume that the best way to invest in the dream is to support the dreamers. But, because humanity has yet to invent a way to predict ideas and inventors, the safest bet on securing long-term growth is to invest in education and innovation across the board.”

Nationwide, “patent applicability distribution” shows how innovation in different fields has progressed and concentrated differently in different regions.

The fact that California leads the nation for invention, points to the need for an area to be socially and economically open to the disruption that comes with new concepts. Innovation is most strong in populated areas with strong capital markets that can finance invention.

California stands out with the highest patent applicability for six of the nine main patent classification sections: human necessities; performing operations and transporting; chemistry and metallurgy; physics; electricity; emerging cross-sectional technologies.

Bar and casino owners in Billings and Yellowstone County are very apprehensive about the impact of a revamping of zoning regulations, called Project Re-code, which is very near to being adopted by both the city and county. One owner said the code could have “traumatic consequences” for the gaming industry.

Real estate agents and builders also voiced concerns to the Billings City Council on Monday, prompting the council to postpone further action until December 14. Last week, Yellowstone County Commissioners also delayed taking action on the county’s revised codes, which differ than those being considered by the city.

Regulators have been working on rewriting the 600 plus page document for three and a half years and one of its authors, Darell Tunnicliff, questioned why it’s detractors are waiting until now to object to some of its requirements. Tunnicliff is among  a dozen or so citizens who were appointed by the City County Planning Board to completely overhaul the codes.

Nicole Cromwell, Billings Zoning Coordinator and Code Enforcement Supervisor, said that since the first hearing on November 9, her office has received many calls and emails from casino/bar owners, builders, sign companies and real estate agents with concerns. Most of the time, she said, they were mistaken in their interpretations of what was meant and clarifications on her part satisfied them.

The passage of Re-code will immediately put almost all 134 casino and bar owners in Billings out of compliance. A 600-foot distance requirement from parks, churches, schools and residents, was specifically designed to do that, in order to push such businesses into being concentrated in a few areas of the city. Cromwell said that once in force, only five casinos on Grand Avenue will be in compliance with Re-code. Non-complying businesses are “grandfathered in” until they have to rebuild or remodel for some reason.

As one owner, Fred Liske, wrote to the city council, “If a bar or casino gets destroyed by accident or disaster, it can’t rebuild as a bar or casino if it doesn’t fit the new zoning requirement.” He was among numerous gaming owners pointing out the issue, saying the requirement stands to destroy the property values, investments and livelihoods of all those involved in the business.

City Councilwoman Pam Purinton urged the council to agree to a delay to allow the Planning Department to deal with the citizens’ concerns.

Wyeth Friday, who heads the Planning Department, and a number of council people, expressed frustration with the delay saying that some of the issues they were being asked to re-examine were achieving exactly the things that those writing the codes said they wanted to do, especially those having to do with casinos.  City planners expressed concern that by entertaining the citizen’s current complaints about Re-code, the council was initiating a process that could go on for a long time and shouldn’t be encouraged.

City Councilwomen Penny Ronning  and other council people made the point that the distancing regulations were the result of safety concerns of residents located near those kinds of businesses and that those concerns were valid and just as important as business interests.

“I don’t think you can devalue private property like that,” said one casino owner,  pointing out that it would “create a skid row. You can’t put one kind of business in one area of the city.” He said he had asked for a map indicting where casinos and bars “would be allowed to locate”, but had not received one.

There were others who questioned why casinos are being targeted and whether that is a legal policy.

City Attorney Brent Brooks was asked whether the document has been reviewed for its legality, to which he replied that it has not and advised that that process needs to be done.

“We need to weigh it very carefully,” he said, “We need to look at it… and  be very careful and get it right and accurate so that property owners will know exactly what is going to happen.”

Among other concerns expressed most frequently by real estate agents was what they believed were requirements for homeowners to hire professional landscapers to landscape their property. It added to the cost of home ownership they said, and would not help housing affordability.

Cromwell said that the regulations were not directed at home owners but at developers and pertained primarily to the aesthetic requirement for trees.

Council members asked the staff to look at rewording the landscaping code since so many comments were about it, which indicated that it was not understandable.

Other issues which prompted citizen concerns had to do with garage doors and spacing for residential units, single use zoning, etc. many of which said builders would add to the cost of home ownership.

Besides a humanitarian crisis, two hurricanes across the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua could result in a shortage of coffee, according to AccuWeather.

Honduras is the biggest grower of coffee in the region, followed by Nicaragua and Guatemala. Combined, these three countries account for around 8% of the world’s coffee output. In Honduras alone, coffee is a $1 billion industry that generates 1 million jobs and accounts for 30% of the country’s Gross Domestic Agricultural Product, according to the Honduran Coffee Institute, a leading trade group in the country’s coffee industry.

The loss of coffee crop in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala could result in higher prices for wholesale coffee buyers but may not be enough to have a substantial impact on prices for everyday coffee drinkers.

AccuWeather estimates that during Eta, there was a 10% loss of Central American coffee, mainly because of roads being washed out and coffee not making it to the market. It further estimates that additional impacts from Iota could be as much as another 10% to perhaps 25% loss as the region could be more susceptible to damage in the wake of Eta

These losses could  be compounded by a strike.

Even if the coffee plants are unharmed after both storms, the significant rain could cause the coffee to mature too quickly and affect its quality,

Jerrick Adams, The Center Square

On Nov. 19, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham announced that, “during post-collection processing, certain processing anomalies have been discovered” in the 2020 United States Census. Dillingham said he had directed the bureau “to utilize all resources available to resolve this as expeditiously as possible.” Also on Nov. 19, The New York Times reported that “a growing number of snags in the massive data-processing operation that generates population totals had delayed the completion of population calculations at least until Jan. 26, [2021], and perhaps to mid-February.”

This expected delay could postpone state redistricting efforts in 2021. At least one state (California) has already extended its redistricting deadlines in light of the uncertainty surrounding the conclusion of the census. On July 17, the California Supreme Court unanimously ordered the California Citizens Redistricting Commission to release draft district plans by Nov. 1, 2021, and final district plans by Dec. 15, 2021. The original deadlines were July 1, 2021, and August 15, 2021, respectively.

The census, apportionment, and redistricting: Every ten years, the United States conducts the census, a complete count of the U.S. population. Census results determine congressional apportionment (i.e., the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives). Because the U.S. Constitution requires that seats in the House be apportioned to the states on the basis of population, a state can gain seats if its population grows or lose seats if its population decreases, relative to populations in other states.

Federal law requires congressional and legislative districts to have substantively equal populations. States use census data during their redistricting processes to ensure compliance with this requirement. The standard census timeline calls for the bureau to submit apportionment counts to the President by Dec. 31 and redistricting data to the states by April 1, 2021.

In the 2010 cycle, redistricting authorities enacted 43 new congressional district maps and 50 new state legislative district maps. The majority of these – 63 maps (31 congressional and 32 state legislative), 67.74 percent of the total– were enacted in 2011. In 2012, 28 maps (12 congressional and 16 state legislative) were enacted, 30.11 percent of the total. The remaining maps were enacted in the first six months of 2013.


Isle Development Llc/Beartooth Holding & Construction, 1008 Shiloh Crossing Blvd , Com New Other, $711,150

Better Billings Foundation/Elevated Home Crafters Inc, 543 Aronson Ave, Com New Other, $4,000

Bartle, Victoria W & , 1402 Broadwater Ave, Com New Other, $18,737

Tanner Bennion/Jorden Construction, 848 Main St, Com Remodel, $160,000

Circle P Ranch Llc/TWE Construction & Restoration Inc, 2170 Overland Ave, Com Remodel,


Kevin McGovern/Zane Merrell Construction Llc, 1410 38th St W, Com Remodel, $8,000

Midtown Realty Llc/Jorden Construction, 1211 24th St W, Com Remodel, $25,000

Richard D Zier Living Trust 65/Donahue Roofing Llc, 1919 4th Ave N, Com Fence/Roof/Siding   $83,310.00

Billings Clinic/Swank Enterprise, 2929 10th Ave N, Com New Hospitals/Institutions, $1,100,000.00 

Roman Catholic Bishop Of Grt Falls/Leonard Schuff, 234 N 31st St, Com New Other, $75,000.00

Rommesmo Family Limited Partnership/Langlas & Assoc., Inc., 1501 S 30th St W, Com New Other  $3,000,000

Deaconess Medical Center Of Billings/Jones Construction, Inc, 2800 10th Ave N, Com Remodel,   $629,878

Elevation Church Billings, Inc/Snowy River Construction/Lawncare, 711 4th Ave N, Com Remodel, $5,026.00

Stock Investment Group III Llc, 115 Shiloh Rd, Com Remodel, $17,800


High Sierra II  Inc, 2478 Greenbriar Rd, Res New Accessory, $43,200

South Pine Design/South Pine Design, 2609 Strapper Ln, Res New Single Family, $307,730

High Sierra Ii Inc/Infinity Home Llc, 1503 Rancho Vista Ave, Res New Single Family, $194,170

High Sierra Ii Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 2478 Greenbriar Rd, Res New Single Family,   $235,514

Mountain Range Llc/Formation Inc, 2517 Mountain Range Ct, Res New Single Family,  $298,648

Mountain Range Llc/Formation Inc, 2518 Mountain Range Ct, Res New Single Family,    $289,092

Trent Parks/Billings Best Builders Llc, 911 Mission Oaks Dr, Res New Two Family, $442,320

Jeff Engel Construction Inc /Jeff Engel Construction, Inc, 513 N Lakeview Dr, Res New Two Family, $356,798

McCall Development Inc/McCall Development, 6021 Norma Jean Ln, Res New Accessory Structure, $32,256

David Mutch/Yellowstone Property Solutions Llc, 1409 Carson Way, Res New Single Family,    $221,222

High Sierra II Inc/Infinity Home Llc, 2420 Bonito Loop, Res New Single Family, $209,856.00

Dennis & Nancy Cook/Kings Mountain Builders Inc, 872 Garnet Ave, Res New Single Family,   $358,655

McCall Development Inc/McCall Development, 6021 Norma Jean Ln, Res New Single Family, $317,886

True North Homes Llc/True North Homes, Llc, 1813 E Thunder Mountain Rd, Res New Single Family, $409,936

Classic Design Homes Inc/CDH, Llc, 4035 Lodge Ln, Res New Single Family, $225,955

Governor Steve Bullock announced that over 100 contracted medical staff from across the country are deployed in Montana to assist hospitals with responding to COVID-19 and filling in gaps in healthcare worker shortages due to quarantine or isolation.

“The situation in Montana is serious. Hospital capacity is stressed and our healthcare workers are exhausted, with many unable to work from being exposed to the virus,” said Governor Bullock. “I know I join all Montanans in being incredibly grateful for this additional medical staff to ensure critical care continues during this time. For these national teams and our frontline workers here at home to be successful, we need every Montanan to stay home as much as possible, wear masks, social distance, and avoid gatherings.” 

The medical staff have been deployed to Montana through a partnership between the State of Montana and the employment agency, NuWest Group, to help respond to the rising caseload and a rising number of Montana healthcare workers in quarantine or isolation. The medical staff come from across the nation and will not pull from existing employees within the medical system in Montana. Medical staff include registered nurses and respiratory therapists.

There are currently 110 medical staff on the ground that arrived throughout the weekend working in hospitals at or nearing capacity in Montana, with an anticipated total of 200 staff deployed before Thanksgiving. They will serve until the end of this year. The majority of the medical staff are currently assisting Benefis Health System, Billings Clinic, Kalispell Regional Medical Center, and St. Vincent Healthcare. Medical staff are also deployed at Bozeman Health, Community Medical Center, Great Falls Clinic Hospital, Livingston Healthcare, Providence St. Patrick Hospital, and St. James Healthcare. 

“Hospitals are in critical need of travel RNs and RRTs that are ready and able to take rapid response assignments throughout the State of Montana this week,” said NuWest. “We are urgently deploying RNs with Covid experience within the ICU, ED, Med Surg, or Tele, as well as Respiratory Therapists.”

Eleven Montana companies have been highlighted by the Montana BioScience Cluster Initiative and the Montana High Tech Business Alliance as 2020 Montana Biotech Companies to Watch.

The nominated companies are high-growth, high-potential businesses, many of which are doing innovative work to address unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 Montana Biotech Companies to Watch include:

1. Ahana, Missoula— Although only a year old, Ahana is providing pediatric care for many Montana communities. This software and video-based platform allows patients to receive care during non-traditional hours.

2. VIRIS Detection Systems, Bozeman — Develop viral diagnostics using CRISPR-based technologies.

3. FYR Diagnostics, Missoula — Develop novel diagnostic tools for human and agricultural diseases.

4. Golden Helix, Bozeman — A bioinformatics company specializing in genomic data analysis. 

5. NanoValent Pharmaceuticals, Bozeman — Research and develop targeted nanosphere therapies for cancer treatments

6. PatientOne, Missoula — Develop virtual tools and operational remote monitoring technology for primary care.

7. PurCell Bio, Bozeman — Create supplements free from animal products that can replace blood products in cell culture.

8. Rocky Mountain Biologicals, Missoula — Manufacture cell culture media and protein fractions for pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries

9. SOLO-DEX, Wolf Creek — Designed an opioid-free catheter device for post-surgical pain relief

10. Swan Valley Medical, Bigfork — A mid-stage, privately held medical device company with a unique hospital solution using its patented T-SPeC® technology and advanced analytics to replace existing hospital-based Standards of Practice

11. Truwl, Whitefish – Develop bioinformatics software for sharing data analysis in genomic research.

The eleven 2020 Montana Biotech Companies to Watch profiled reveal a number of key industry trends:

* Four of the 11 firms have raised venture capital investment, a sign of growing interest in Montana bioscience from investors like Michael Goguen, founder of Two Bear Capital in Whitefish.

* Four companies were awarded SBIR/STTR grants, reflecting Montana’s #1 position in securing NIH awards. In 2019, Montana’s SBIR/STIR Application Success Rate with NIH was 48.3 percent – more than double the national average – with support from organizations like TechLink in Bozeman.

* The role of universities in fueling biotech growth is evident in the locations of company headquarters. Four firms are in Bozeman near MSU and four are in Missoula close to UM. Two firms call the Flathead Valley home, indicating the rise of that region as an emerging hub for biotech.

* Montana’s biotech firms are innovators in a range of fields vital to the life sciences – vaccine development, diagnostic testing, bioinformatics, telemedicine, medical devices, cancer treatment, pain management, and development of cell culture media.

* More than half of selected firms are rising up to meet new needs in healthcare driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

The finalists were selected based on the following criteria:

* Steep revenue growth and/or are working in a high-growth sector

* Poised to launch high-potential products or services

* Own or are developing valuable intellectual property

* On track to land major clients or enter new markets

* Plan to expand operations or add a significant number of jobs in the next year

* Have management teams led by experienced entrepreneurs or top experts in their fields

* Working to address unique challenges presented by COVID-19

By Evelyn Pyburn

In speaking to County Commissioners, County Health Officer John Felton said that although he is normally an optimistic person, “It’s getting increasingly hard to be optimistic,” regarding the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

“The state is just on fire with cases,” said Felton.

The number of cases is nearing 100 per 100,000 population, which Felton said is very serious. Just under 6 percent of the population has been infected.

 Montana has been experiencing escalating cases since mid-September, (see accompanying article) Felton said that he doesn’t know what else to do other than impose more restrictions, which happened with announcement from Governor Bullock that requires bars, restaurants and casinos to reduce capacity from 75 percent to 50 percent and to close at 10 pm – limitations that are the same as being totally shutdown for many businesses, beginning Nov. 20.

Felton broadened the restrictions on hours of operation to include all businesses. He has also hired four “liaison officers” to patrol businesses in Yellowstone County and oversee training of people failing to comply and oversee legal proceedings of enforcement against businesses.

“I know that there are significant economic impacts,” Felton said, noting that the situation is even more severe since, “we don’t have access to all the supports we had in the beginning with the CARES act.”

Montana ranks ninth in the nation in terms of COVID cases per 100,000 population which is at 95.4.

After the impact of the Canyon Creek nursing home cases, the number of cases in Yellowstone County dropped to a level more in keeping with its share of population, at about 16 percent.

Yellowstone County’s hospitals are at capacity. Besides space, the hospitals are struggling with having adequate staffing since many are either sick or quarantining.

“This is becoming a pretty significant issue for us,” said Felton.

The number of regional patients fluctuates between 40 and 60 daily. Billing’s medical community serves a regional population of about 650,000 people.

People have occasionally asked why they don’t just refuse to accept out- of- county patients, to which Felton explained that Billings has spent the last 40 years establishing itself as a regional medical center and has thrived economically on that distinction, in addition they have a moral responsibility to live up to the commitment.

Felton also pointed out that staffing issues are impacting local businesses, making it difficult for them to stay open. It is not that much different for them than being required shut down. Staffing shortages are also the primary issue with which schools are dealing.

Schools “haven’t seen a large number of kids becoming ill,” reported Felton. There has only been a slight increase in the number of cases since school began.

Yellowstone County is experiencing more deaths, said Felton. As of press time, the County had 107 deaths, with the number of confirmed cases in the county nearing 10,000. The state has had almost 50,000, with 543 deaths.

Felton rebuffed claims that hospitals get funding based on the number of COVID cases reported. He said, “There is no economic benefit to say that someone dies of COVID when they don’t.”

The good news lies in reports that there are two effective vaccines on their way. How they will be distributed has yet to be determined, and it is likely that the vaccines will have to be taken repeatedly, not unlike flu shots.

“I don’t know where the end point is,” said Felton, “….There is no evidence that we are at the top. What slows it down is when people decide this is enough. I have to do my part.”

“We know how to slow this thing down. ..There is no ‘magic sauce’”

It requires masking, distancing, and sanitizing. Bars, restaurants, gyms, schools and churches should be closed – “but we haven’t done that… now we are at the point.”

 “There are no good choices,” said Felton.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The future belongs to companies that are keeping pace with available technology. American Steel, Inc. in Billings is well aware of that and they are taking very measured steps to keep at the forefront of their industry, steel fabrication.

American Steel recently announced the appointment of a manager who will lead the company into that future.  Curtis Childree has been named as the new Vice President, bringing with him years of hands-on experience learned from the ground up, which gives him a depth and breadth of knowledge that will serve the company and industry well.

American Steel, located at 1655 Coulson Road in Lockwood, has already installed some major pieces of new technology over the past three years, investing some $1.5 million in robots and management programs that are transforming the way they do business and expanding the level of service they can provide their customers, which most typically are the owners, contractors and erectors of buildings.

Acquiring the technology is but a small part of the process, points out David Lewis, who has been charged by company owner, Bill Kronmiller, with the challenge of overseeing the transition. “To transition from where it was to where it is going to go,” said Lewis, “requires knowing how the leadership is going to react to the changes. There needs to be changes in the way the business thinks about how things are done and the way it behaves.”

The new technology is making production more efficient, which increases the level of service, often at less cost. “Vendors are excited for the change,” said Lewis, who explained that American Steel is not a large company and described it as a “boutique” fabricator, where “we weld things together.”  Most of their customers are within the Montana region.

Lewis sees himself as a short-timer. Having once accomplished his mission, he will retire in a couple of years. Childree and the newly trained and transitioned staff will be the future for American Steel.

Kronmiller acquired full ownership of American Steel in May 2016. He founded the company with partner Paul Neutgens in 1998 in west Billings. They built a new plant in Lockwood in 2009.

Since the adoption of the new processes and equipment, American Steel exceeds almost every standard set by the AISC (American Institute of Steel Construction).

Their first project, which served as their “jumping off point” for their new skills and processes was the construction of Shiloh Commons at Central Avenue and Shiloh. By the end of that project, said Childree, “We had a baseline from which to work and we have continued to change things… change has been constant.” The American Steel team members “are now more than willing to try something.” They are understanding that changes will be “fruit-bearing down the line,” said Childree, a Montana native who over 15 years ago started in his first job as a janitor at a fabricating company in Lewistown, becoming a welder after leaving the National Guard, and advancing from one role to another at American Steel, as a Beam-line operator, detailer, project manager and learning computer programming.

At the forefront of the new technology that has been adopted by the company is a program that allows them to build a model that involves designing and planning, down to the most minute detail… not only where each nut and bolt goes but when it will go there. The process allows them to identify overlapping conflicts and to solve problems before they materialize. The model is available to everyone involved with the project, from shop managers, each of whom has a computer, to the project owner and contractors. “All that information helps our customers in other planning,” explained Childree.

It is not uncommon for a project model to involve 36,000 pieces, said Childree. “Every item is defined to within 16th of an inch.”  The program also provides for detailed scheduling, which allows American Steel to predict to the exact day when a load will be delivered to the worksite and to provide with confidence a completion date.

Other amazing pieces of technology are two robots – one they call “Ratchet” that welds pieces astoundingly precise and rapidly, and the other called “Rosie” that cuts through steel as though it was butter, using “controlled lightening.” Operating the robots requires considerable training and skills, which their managers have not only achieved, said Lewis, but many he considers world-class operators.

“The introduction of these technologies by itself is just expensive if you don’t have individuals able to use it. It comes down to people,” said Lewis, who came to Billings in the 1980s by way of Eugene, Oregon. He has built businesses paralleling the advancement of computerization, and has developed a very practical philosophy about technology. He noted how quickly “revolutionary changes” in technology, becomes “second nature,” to the people using it.

There is a lot of fascination as well as angst about AI (artificial intelligence), with many worried that “you can take humans out of the situation,” said Lewis. There is a fear that employment will be less. Lewis points out though, that as amazing as technology has been “there has always been human thinking involved.” That will continue to be the case, he believes, and rather than less opportunity there will be more, as has been the case for American Steel’s 44 employees. Their jobs have become more interesting and challenging with more pay as productivity and skill levels increase. “Robots don’t replace people, they enhance them,” he said, “…a robot doesn’t have skills,” it is the skilled craftsman that is innovative.

Montanans are more willing than most to embrace change and to adapt, said Lewis. “You show Montanans why you want to adapt to technology and they get it. They love it. They want to be competitive and they realize if they don’t someone else, somewhere else, will be.”

Both Lewis and Childree frequently referred to the new technologies as “toys” and that time working with new technology is “playtime,” and that is how most of their employees are responding to it. When human beings are at play, “that is where the human mind develops the fastest,” said Lewis.