Reprinted from the August edition of Cedar Valley Business Monthly.
TRAER — Industrial equipment plays an important role in getting food from producers to grocery, convenience and other retail stores around the country.
A longtime Traer manufacturer ensures that companies have a small but important component of that equipment: blades.
The rectangular pieces of metal with razor sharp edges produced by Clearline Industries’ Ranger Blade division snap into the equipment of food processing companies. Whether its scraping food products from the interior of giant mixing bowls or cutting rolls of materials for snack bags, the blades complete a multitude of tasks.
“We do a lot in the food processing and packaging industries,” said Steve Droste, sales manager for Range Blades. The products, manufactured in Clearline’s facility at 1561 S. Main St. on the edge of Traer, range from six inches to four feet long. “We manufacture all these blades,” he noted, while standing in a room where they’re stored before shipping.
Computer numerical control machining is used to shape the metal into blades. In the advanced manufacturing process, workers program the machines according to product specifications.
Advanced manufacturing is also essential to the work Clearline does with metal finishing for transportation-related industries.
“We do a lot of after-market motorcycle exhausts,” said Droste. “We do all the finishing up to the chroming.”
As part of the process, the metal cylinders are loaded onto robotic arms which allow for remotely buffing and polishing the products in an enclosed area. Clearline’s manufacturing in that area is “one of the largest robotic finishing operations in the state,” according to Droste. Employees also work with smaller machines to buff the motorcycle exhausts by hand.
“We’ve done a little bit of everything over the years,” he noted. “We just kind of evolve from one thing to the next.”
But when the company began more than 40 years ago, CNC machining and robotic metal finishing weren’t the focus of its manufacturing. It was started in 1978 by Lou Rausch and Rex Betts out of an 800-square-foot building on a rural acreage between Traer and Reinbeck.
“The company started out making aluminum-handled cutlery,” said Droste. Most of their all-metal products were cutting knives along with spoons and two- or three-pronged forks. The cutlery was produced until the late 1990s.
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“For the first 10 years, that was 100% of the business,” said Droste. “They basically started out with five to six employees” including the owners.
In 1991, Clearline moved to its current location, initially with a business office downtown. Through multiple additions, the facility has grown to 30,000 square feet as the business started manufacturing food processing blades and then, about 1995, got into robotic metal finishing. Today, many of the company’s customers are from outside of Iowa.
One of the most notable food products processed with the help of the company’s blades is ice cream sold in stores across the U.S. “Most of the plants that make ice cream, about 75%, we supply the blades,” said Droste.
In addition, reconditioning blades is “a really big part of our business,” he noted, including blades the company doesn’t manufacture. They can last for three to four weeks before needing to be sharpened. “They can be redone four to five times in the life of the blade.”
On the metal finishing side of the business, the company also makes heat shields for motorcycle exhausts, latches for doors on motor homes and bumpers for the automotive industry.
“I would say we’ve gotten more diversified,” said Janelle Betts. She is the widow of Rex Betts and one of the company’s co-owners, along with Rausch and his wife, Cheryl.
Betts’ husband died unexpectedly in May, which caused her to take a more active role with the business. She had a 34-year teaching career and retired from that nine years ago.
Clearline’s economic impact on Traer and the surrounding area has grown over the years along with the company. “We have around 40 employees, so we’re important to the community,” Betts noted.
Tama County Economic Development Commission director Katherine Ollendieck agreed, noting Clearline is one of the few manufacturing business in the area.
“They’re one of our really important employers in the northern part of the county,” she said. Ollendieck called the company a “shining example” of a homegrown business that is helping the community to grow stronger. Serving customers in multiple states “is a big part of their success.”
The various niche markets served by the business “makes it possible for them to grow and expand,” she added. “We’re lucky to have a business like Clearline Industries.”