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'Acting small, delivering big': Minnesota business makes name for itself in competitive automation industry

Ryan Sorkness works at fine tuning a machine at PharmaMED Automation in Hawley. The Hawley company's machine is in the middle of the two end units and is used to apply labels to a nasal spray and then off to the packaging machine. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 3
Oliver DeFelici, left, and Harley Regier assemble a conveyor for a robotic inspection device Thursday, July 13, 2017, at PharmaMED Automation in Hawley. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 3
Dustin Hanson, president of PharmaMED Automation in Hawley, talks about the development of his firm while standing next to one of the robotic inspection devices they are building for the pharmaceutical industry. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 3

HAWLEY, Minn.—A business here doesn't make medication, but its work is invaluable to big players in the pharmaceutical industry.

PharmaMED Automation Inc., which began in 2012 as a one-man startup in a Hawley incubator space, has steadily grown to a staff of more than 10 employees who work in a recently expanded facility at 112 15th St. S.

Late last week, workers were testing and refining custom-designed equipment for clients. One machine will pick up and label medication delivery devices, while another will eventually transfer glass syringes to the next part of the packaging line in a factory.

It's high-tech and innovative work—one robotic rig built by the company will cost about $300,000.

PharmaMED has made a name for itself among automation companies. It now has the capacity to build, test and deliver 10 or more major projects and several smaller pieces or machines each year, and it's expected to continue growing.

But President Dustin Hanson said its core business model of "acting small, delivering big" that he's followed since 2012 will never change.

""We can act small, be flexible, give the customer what they want but then deliver big," he said. "We can deliver something that you would think came from a 200-employee manufacturing facility."

'Connecting the dots'

PharmaMED has mostly focused on "secondary packaging" so far. For example, its equipment could pick up pills in a sealed blister pack and put that into a carton.

Hanson said they're slowly working their way up the line and they now handle more materials, such as manipulating the actual object that will go into packaging.

That's where the company's robotic systems come into play. By building custom machinery that can automate the process, he said PharmaMED's equipment can perform tasks that pharmaceutical companies can't do now or haven't been able to do as efficiently.

"If it's a new product line that they're doing, they're not even always sure how they're going to do it," said Controller Jen Nelson, the company's second employee who joined the team in 2013.

Hanson said these projects, which often amount to "connecting the dots" of parts of the packaging or manufacturing process, often require more than one company. PharmaMED works with Florida-based partner PharmaWorks, a larger manufacturer of standard equipment for the industry.

When a custom piece is needed, PharmaWorks reaches out to the team in Hawley to figure out a solution and build it. It's like a modern construction project, with the larger Florida company acting as general contractor and PharaMED coming in as a subcontractor.

"But now, they're coming to us directly," he said.

Hanson said that's why it was crucial for the business to move into a larger facility with some flair. Its first location after the incubator space was little more than "a building to put something together," he said, but they now have offices, a nicer assembly floor and more amenities.

It's just a matter of time before they outgrow the more than 10,000 square feet of space they now have. He said the company will likely need to build a new facility in Hawley in the next few years.

The team's focus on "caring" about employees, the community and the projects it's tasked with completing has helped it stand out, and Hanson said that will continue.

"I'll throttle growth if I have to to keep that intact and growing in the right way," he said.

Business profile

What: PharmaMED Automation Inc.

Where: 112 15th St. S., Hawley, Minn.



Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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