Q&A with Retiring CIRAS Director Ron Cox

CIRAS Director Ron Cox is retiring after more than 25 years at CIRAS. We sat down with him to discuss what he has seen develop over the past quarter of a century and where he thinks things might be headed.

Ron Cox (center) with members of the CIRAS Advisory Board


Q: How did you get your start at CIRAS?

A: I was returning to Iowa and just happened to see a Des Moines Register ad. The job intrigued me since CIRAS provided education to companies and I had been both an educator and had worked in industry. I thought I’d take the job for five years and then go back to industry, but was hooked.

Q: What about CIRAS hooked you?

A: The diversity of products and services in Iowa companies is just amazing. You can help companies that have household names like Winnebago, Delta Dental, and John Deere; but also wonderful, sometimes hidden gems like Stellar Industries, Life Line Emergency Vehicles, Story Construction, Metalcraft, and so many more.

Q: How did your experience in the aerospace industry support your work with Iowa companies?

A: The diversity of business needs means there are lots of opportunities to help. I just needed to change my view from fighter aircraft to more traditional Midwest manufacturing. Fluid flow, thermodynamics, and data analytics are foundational sciences that can be applied to a wide variety of products and problems.

Q: What were some of your favorite projects from the past 25 years?

A: The variety of topics that CIRAS staff help with is remarkable. One project I helped with was a wind tunnel test of several versions of a product to see which held up best under wind loads. The tests showed that one of their designs was significantly better than what was on the market at the time. Testing projects are a great fit for CIRAS because there are so many world-class labs at Iowa State that we can make available to small companies.

Another involved the development of a simple code to predict how a food item cooled after leaving an oven. We were able to develop a model to predict the conduction and convection of heat from the food as it flowed through a cooling mechanism. In the process, we pinpointed an area of the mechanism that could be significantly improved with a simple modification.

More recently, I took the foundational approach used in aircraft optimization to study Iowa’s workforce challenges and design a more holistic approach to helping companies improve their attraction and retention of employees.

Q: How has CIRAS changed over your career?

A: In 1963, the year the center was created, CIRAS had about a half-dozen men who counseled companies. Center directors after that moved CIRAS more into technology projects and small grants. The main changes I saw in my career were the growth of grants, an increase in staff and staff diversity as we merged other programs into CIRAS, and significantly more partnerships, both on- and off-campus. As a result, we now offer Iowa companies a much greater diversity and depth of services.

Just one example is our partnerships with ISU departments to bring over 100 company projects to student classes. That was a great win-win for the students and Iowa businesses.

Q: What does your crystal ball say about the next quarter century for CIRAS and Iowa businesses?

A: I believe labor shortages will affect Iowa businesses for the next several decades, but I remain bullish on the state because I’ve seen so many companies fight the odds and continue to grow because of dedicated leaders with big visions. I see lots more automation, maybe in unexpected ways, and I hope more companies embrace a continuous improvement mindset. Larger, more competitive, and more profitable companies paying higher wages will hopefully be the result.

Q: What advice do you have for the next CIRAS Director?

A: My advice would be the same as I would give to any business owner – start with a big vision; surround yourself with smart, hardworking, and caring individuals; develop innovative strategies; and be relentless in the pursuit of operational excellence. And have fun!

Q: So what does your future look like? 

A: Hopefully fewer meetings, the same amount of data analysis, and a lot more family, 14ers, furniture design, and air shows. And hopefully, I still get invited to tour Iowa businesses!


Interim Director Named for the Center for Industrial Research and Service at Iowa State University

Assistant Director and Operations Manager Leah Barton has been announced as interim director for the Center of Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS). Barton has been serving CIRAS since 2008. She will begin her interim role on January 5, 2023. A search for a new director will begin as soon as possible.