Paving the way for smart factories

Paving the way for smart factories

Milwaukee area group vying for Midwest research institute

(Article featured in “MANUFACTURING TRENDS”  June 15, 2015    Vol. 23, No 24
Growing the U.S. Economy by Strengthening Advanced Manufacturing)

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – John Schmid: 6-7-15)    Sensing that the next generation of industrial automation and robots is about to reshape manufacturing, a group of Milwaukee-area economic strategists would like to create a Midwest Smart Manufacturing Institute.

The group, which began meeting this year as an informal subcommittee within the Milwaukee 7 economic development consortium, is prepared to submit a formal bid on behalf of the metro region when President Barack Obama announces a national competition to create a smart factory research institute in coming months.

Obama has already set up five other manufacturing technology institutes, including three in the Midwestern cities of Youngstown, Ohio (three-dimensional printing), Detroit (lightweight materials for manufacturing) and Chicago (digital engineering and design).

Called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), the research hubs are just getting off the ground, but each includes local universities and private industry as well as state and federal agencies. Last year, the White House said it plans to add three more institutes, including one dedicated to smart manufacturing. The stakes are high, whether or not the project ever takes off. Rival manufacturing economies from Asia to Europe are investing aggressively in ultra-efficient, hyper-automated industrial technologies.

We believe industrial operations will change more radically in the next 10 years than in the last 50,” warns Keith Nosbusch, chief executive of Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc., which supplies systems that raise productivity and lower costs at places like car factories, oil refineries, water treatment plants and food processors.

Smart manufacturing goes by different names: the industrial Internet, the connected enterprise, smart factories.

The idea is to network all the production equipment with sensors and controls, orchestrating and optimizing everything from suppliers to customer demand, even syncing with the electrical grid to maximize off-peak rates.

In the most recent advance, smart factory controls have migrated onto smartphones, meaning mobile factory workers can run their industrial operations with the ease of a video game. But fewer than 14% of U.S. manufacturers have invested in automated networks, Nosbusch said. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel vows that the home of Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche will do all it can to maintain a leadership role in modern industrial production, even if Germany lacks consumer level technology front-runners like Apple Inc. or Google Inc.

“In sectors like chip production, the world market is far ahead of us,” Merkel said at a national technology summit in Hamburg in October. When it comes to advanced automation – which Merkel calls Industry 4.0 – “Germany has a chance at taking the lead,” she said.

Intensifying competition even further for the U.S., Chinese Premier Li Kegiang signed an agreement with Merkel late last year to collaborate on smart manufacturing.

China is already one of the world’s biggest investors in sophisticated robots. The Pearl River Delta, a bastion of China’s cheap-labor manufacturing, is spending $154 billion in the next three years on next-generation robots. After the first industrial revolution, Milwaukee and the region retained a sizable portion of its lunch-bucket industry: motorcycles and engines, mining machinery, controls, foundries, paper, food and beverage. To this day, much of Wisconsin relies on manufacturing for the greatest share of its employment. But that also makes industrial competitiveness crucial to the fate of places like Wisconsin.

Regions that lag in smart machines and the skills to run them are likely to feel upheaval, warns Todd Broadie, a consultant who works for the M-7 Next Generation Manufacturing Council, the committee that convenes the smart manufacturing group. The M-7 is a consortium of business leaders from the seven counties of southeastern Wisconsin.

“What’s headed our way is a disruption like what happened to music publishing. It’s urgent. It’s hitting manufacturing now,” Broadie said in an interview last week at a meeting of the Milwaukee 7 in Lake Geneva.

One of the business leaders who wants to see Milwaukee win the national competition for the Smart Manufacturing Institute is Mary Isbister, president of GenMet Corp., a privately held metal fabrication shop in Mequon. At present, metro Milwaukee has a wide diversity of manufacturers in terms of their scope, scale and products, making it well suited to try out new technologies. But failure to invest would make the region “an also-ran,” said Isbister, who co-chairs the M-7 Next Generation Manufacturing Council along with Rockwell executive Mike Laszkiewicz.

“Other countries will far outpace our abilities,” she said. With 65 employees, GenMet is a small shop floor compared to the multinational companies. But GenMet has been adding sensors and data collection systems that manage and analyze the shop floor. In addition to two robotic welders, its paperless factory floor has software that maximizes how many parts can be laser cut from a single sheet of steel.

Matching funds Whoever wins the competition will need to assemble a consortium of private industry and universities to support the research. They also will need to come up with enough funding to at least match the $70 million each institute receives over five years from the federal government, said Buckley Brinkman, executive director of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a statewide affiliate of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Brinkman and Isbister are among those who are most vocal in wanting to make a bid for the smart manufacturing institute. They are joined by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., an arm of state government that should be useful when it comes to matching funds.

“Smart Manufacturing is the evolutionary leap forward for Next Generation Manufacturers in the Industry 4.0 era that is upon us now, not in 10 years,” Lee Swindall, WEDC vice president of industry development, said in an email. “The deciding factor in our competitive advantage will be not whether we adopt this transformational change, but how quickly we do so.”

The White House was expected to announce a competition for a Smart Manufacturing Institute as early as February, but was held up in the congressional budget process, said Michael Molnar, director of the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office, which is orchestrating the Obama manufacturing effort.

An announcement is expected in coming months, Molnar said.

Whether or not Milwaukee prevails in its bid, all involved agree Wisconsin needs to adopt the new tools. The group will look at any grants, programs, funding or ideas that can help lead the region into the smart manufacturing business, said Carmel Ruffolo, an economic development strategist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

We are not waiting for Washington,” Ruffolo said.

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