Dickson Turns to CIRAS for Automation Support

Dickson employee supervising automation process for fabric casing.
Dickson employee supervising automation process for fabric casing.

Investing in new technology can be risky. The financial outlay can be high, and confidence that the technology will deliver an adequate return on investment can be low.

Similar to numerous manufacturers, Dickson Industries, a Des Moines-based company specializing in custom food packaging and textiles, had the potential to increase its sales. However, like other Iowa businesses, it grappled with a challenging workforce environment that posed difficulties for its expansion.

“We were looking at automation of some tasks, not because we wanted to replace workers but because we wanted to supplement what they were doing,” said David Dickson, president of Dickson Industries.

CIRAS evaluated the process in question—creating the fabric casing commonly used for turkeys, hams, and other meats. Dickson had several stations that processed and cut the netting, and they weren’t able to hire enough workers to keep up with orders. They worked with CIRAS to study the current process, determine desired changes, develop specifications for needed automation, and connect Dickson with potential system integrators to provide the automated system.

This wasn’t the first time that Dickson worked with CIRAS. They collaborated with CIRAS before to get a coveted food quality and safety certification, and they liked that CIRAS’s priority was supporting them as an Iowa manufacturer. “We knew they had a vested interest in the success of the project,” Dickson said.

CIRAS was able to come in with fresh eyes and the expertise needed to analyze the tasks that needed to be automated. That included documenting how workers took an extra step to wipe off accumulated liquid after each netting cut and how the netting cuts needed to vary in size.

“We help companies think through the variations and nuances of the process and how to mitigate potential risks. This approach and documentation are key to helping a system integrator provide a successful automation project for the company,” said Andrew Friend, CIRAS project manager.

CIRAS helped Dickson vet vendors and estimate equipment, pricing, and the impact on the company’s immediate business and long-term goals. The project included automating the fabric cutting and movement through the process with numerous sensors to help manage the process. These changes will allow the current operator to manage multiple systems.

The project with Dickson is an excellent example of what CIRAS does for Iowa manufacturers, Friend says. “We help them grow their capacity when maintaining a workforce is not easy. And we de-risk technology adoption for companies so they can be confident as they change and adapt to market needs.”

For more information, contact Andrew Friend at afriend@iastate.edu or 515-520-2803.