Contest seeks to learn: What’s the coolest thing made in Nebraska?

Business leaders aim to attract workers to manufacturing jobs and boost industry image

By: - October 5, 2022 3:00 am

The Pivot Walker by Chief Fabrication in Grand Island is one of two finalists in the Coolest Thing Made in Nebraska contest. (Courtesy of Nebraska Chamber and Nebraska Manufacturing Alliance)

OMAHA — More than 20,000 votes so far have chimed in on a contest that next week will reveal the “Coolest Thing Made in Nebraska.”

Designed as a fun image-booster for the state’s manufacturing industry, the bracket-style knockout competition was organized by the Nebraska Manufacturing Alliance and Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

People with an email have until Sunday to cast a final vote before the winner is announced Oct. 11 at the state’s annual Manufacturing Summit at the La Vista Conference Center.

The R211 subway car is a finalist in 2022 “Coolest Thing Made In Nebraska” contest. (Courtesy of Nebraska Chamber and Nebraska Manufacturing Alliance)

About 50 entries whittled to 2

What started as a field of about 50 contenders has come down to two finalists: a high-tech subway railcar and a pivot irrigation wheel that walks (more than rolls) on tiny snowshoes of sorts.

Contenders didn’t have to be a product used in Nebraska, but they had to be made locally and represent the power, variety and value in choosing a manufacturing job in the state, said Mike Johnson, the Chamber’s vice president of manufacturing.

A sign of success, he said, would be to hear a student say: “Holy cow, I had no idea I could make something like this in my own backyard, in this area, and have this really unique and interesting career.”

One of the finalists is the R211 subway car, built at the Kawasaki Motors plant in Lincoln. Three variations can be seen in full glory on the rails of New York City, bearing digital displays with real-time rider information, bright lighting and signage, and aerodynamic bonnets.

Manufacturing contributes more than $14 billion to Nebraska’s total state output, and in 2019 the industry employed roughly 100,000 Nebraskans.

The Nebraska Manufacturing Alliance also reports that the average earnings for a manufacturing job in the state exceed $66,000.

It says Nebraska’s affordable real estate and utility costs and high-quality transportation networks make the state a natural fit for manufacturing growth.

Challenges, says the Alliance, include labor shortages.

‘Duking it out’ on social media

Meanwhile, the competition, the “pivot walker,” is a concept brought by a central Nebraska farmer to Chief Fabrication in Grand Island. The idea behind it is to reduce pivot ruts in fields that can lead to equipment damage and livestock injuries.

Here’s a pitch by the pivot walker maker, trying to appeal to the hometown crowd: “Nebraska farmer, Nebraska manufacturing and Nebraska used. It doesn’t get much more Nebraska than that!”

Johnson said the first-ever Coolest Thing Made In Nebraska contest raised other friendly banter, including when a Minden-made product used on a rover sent to the planet Mars went head-to-head against the Aurora-assembled Grain Weevil ag robot.

Fans of each were “duking it out” on social media in an entertaining battle that Johnson said remained ever so “Nebraska respectful.”

The Grain Weevil robot was among the nominees. (Courtesy of Nebraska Chamber and Nebraska Manufacturing Alliance)

The Weevil robot won that round. Its sponsor described the machine as a cost-saving risk-absorber “doing the work no farmer should” inside a grain bin. 

The Mars 2020 Ducts product by Royal Engineered Composites of Minden had its own impressive resume, though. The ducting components supported NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.

The Nebraska Chamber and the Manufacturing Alliance launched the competition to coincide with October Manufacturing Month. About 50 nominations were narrowed by a committee to 16, Johnson said, and those then competed in a bracket-style tournament where pairs faced off until the final two emerged.

Johnson said he used a random generator to set the brackets.

Nominees included well-known Nebraska brands such as Columbus-based Dorothy Lynch dressings and Omaha-based Lozier retail shelving. 

The Road Zipper by Lindsay is a way to lift barriers and more easily and safely reconfigure travel lanes. (Courtesy of Nebraska Chamber and Manufacturing Alliance)

A sampling of others: The Rambler copper mugs by Handlebend of O’Neill; the Road Zipper by Lindsay of Omaha; Wood Barns & Homes by Timberlyne in Wayne; Athletic Hurdles by Blazer Athletic Equipment of Columbus; the Tractor Stalk Roller by KinnanFAB Inc. of Cozad; the Stinger Firetruck Boomer out of Rosenbaur in Fremont.

Even holiday favorite Grandma’s Fruitcakes by Beatrice Bakery made the bracket stage.

Johnson said he was beyond pleased with the energy the tournament has generated. Nominees are invited to showcase their products at the Oct. 11 summit. He said the activities help dispel the image of manufacturing as a job in dingy conditions.

“We’re showcasing that manufacturing isn’t a dark and dangerous place. You can find great careers making interesting things.”

Bracket leading to winner of contest to be announced Oct. 11. (Courtesy of Nebraska Chamber and Nebraska Manufacturing Alliance)



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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.