When a company traces its history back nearly 150 years, its story is likely one of continuous change and evolution. For Dotson Iron Castings of Mankato, Minn., it is also a story of survival, innovation and respect for people.
During the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s recent plant tour, Dotson’s leaders shared elements of this story and gave visitors a firsthand look at its production practices and culture.
With its roots dating back to a blacksmith shop founded in 1876, Dotson Iron Castings has persevered through early product failures, a 1937 bankruptcy, the 1980s recession, a 2017 fire, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and emerged stronger due in part to the company’s leadership, people and culture.
In its early history, the company offered diversified products including an automobile, a tractor and its best-seller, the Little Giant Trip Hammer. The company also dealt in brass, aluminum, and steel. Since 1983, the 125,000 square foot foundry has focused solely on ductile iron primarily for the industrial, agriculture, and truck industry segments. By focusing on this single product, Dotson has become an iron casting and Manufacturing 4.0 leader.
Innovating for the Future
As the company has evolved, its leadership and employees have created a culture that respects people and encourages innovation. The company’s Manufacturing 4.0 journey has seen Dotson implement data generation and collection systems including a FARO Quantum Scan Arm that takes 3D measurements to inspect product quality. Other innovations showcased during the MLC tour include machine monitoring data, automated charging in the melt process and automatic mold pouring.
On the sustainability front, the company continues to find new ways to reuse energy and materials. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to reach iron’s 2700 degrees Fahrenheit (1482° C) melting point, which in turn creates heat energy that Dotson captures and uses to heat its facility in winter months, including an in-ground heating system to keep its loading dock area free from ice and snow – both common for Minnesota. The company reuses excess iron that is removed from castings in the finishing process and also reclaims the sand used in its molds, eliminating almost 70% of the non-recyclable waste leaving its facility.
Recognizing an Iron-Willed Team
When an electrical contractor caused a fire that destroyed all the company’s molding lines in 2017, it took Dotson six weeks to rebuild its operation. Rather than send workers home, company leaders kept its frontline workers employed in the cleanup process or by sending them out into Mankato to complete community service work.
After rebuilding and reopening the foundry, the company’s then-owners, Denny Dotson and Jean Bye, envisioned and built a new worker-focused space with showers, changing areas, lockers, upgraded break areas including an outdoor terrace, and a more welcoming reception area. The company calls this new space the “Club House,” and it serves as a further indication of the company’s commitment to its people.
More than Just a Tour
For MLC’s plant tour participants, the visit to Dotson Iron Castings included more than just a tour of the foundry and Club House. Visitors had the opportunity to network with fellow Manufacturing 4.0 professionals, participate in one of three breakout sessions, and ask questions both during the tour and a capstone panel discussion.
The breakout sessions dove deep into key topics facing both Dotson and participants alike: IT/OT Convergence, Energy Efficiency in an Energy Intensive Industry, and The Employee Center and Next Generation Workforce Influence. Dotson’s leadership team shared its experiences and answered questions, shedding light on the company’s continuing evolution.
The event culminated with a wide-ranging panel discussion featuring nine representatives of the host company. The panelists fielded audience questions about workforce turnover, technology innovation, and how the company has perpetually overcome challenges.
The Dotson Iron Castings tour showcased how the company – forged in fire – has equipped its employees with the right technologies and created a culture that is poised to build on its 147-year history.
All photos courtesy Dotson Iron Castings