Technology, Investments Needed to Retool Manufacturing

Dec. 8, 2020
An NPFA/FPIC discussion focused on lessons from the pandemic.

Innovation and technology helped manufacturers meet the immediate challenges in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The outcome was both a lesson in bipartisan cooperation and a living case study on the value of Industry 4.0 principles and solutions.

The question for manufacturing leaders in three key Midwestern states now is how to help small and mid-sized manufacturers implement technology to speed economic recovery—or in some cases, ensure business survival.

The keynote at the Dec. 3 regional conference presented by the National Fluid Power Association and the Fluid Power Industrial Consortium was a discussion among three state-level manufacturing executives on the lessons learned from the pandemic, as well as the retooling of manufacturing needed to meet near-term PPE and medical supply needs. Buckley Brinkman, executive director and CEO at the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity, moderated a discussion in the virtual event that included Mike Coast, president of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, and Ethan Karp, president and CEO of the Ohio Manufacturing Partnership.

One of the big lessons for the partnership leaders was the way manufacturers quickly adapted processes. “The biggest takeaway was the way we responded,” Karp said. “The innovation, the altruism, helped raise the profile of manufacturing in the state and made people remember that for a lot of our communities, manufacturing is still the backbone. I think this saved some jobs, saved some lives and changed the perspective.”

Karp noted all of this happened despite a politically charged atmosphere in the middle of an election year. “I’d like to think Ohio did this extremely well,” Karp said. “Our governor [Republican Mike DeWine] brought back former governors from both parties so we could open the economy. Politics and turf went out the window. I truly believe our industry association, our private economic development and our governor just got it done. We talk about partnership. Sometimes it happens; often it doesn’t. This was a true partnership.”

And while the political leadership was reversed, Coast said there was a similar dynamic in Michigan. “[Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer] reached out to Republicans to get stuff done. She worked really hard with the Michigan Manufacturers Association. This was a real ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation, and people were getting stuff done.”

The pandemic did uncover some fundamental flaws for manufacturers. A supply chain already weakened by trade disputes was stressed to breaking after the pandemic limited imports. Business battled to stay competitive on price and still meet overwhelming supply requests. The issue of reshoring manufacturing to bring supplies closer to end-users became a topic that manufacturers also had to revisit.

But beyond that issue came the more fundamental look at how to implement technology to improve cost management and enhance worker output. “A lot more companies are looking at these technologies; you still have a labor shortage,” Karp noted. “We had 8% unemployment in Ohio, and we still couldn’t find workers for manufacturing. If anyone thought it wasn’t a systemic problem, it is. Technology solutions and investment in workforce and talent systems is absolutely as an option for manufacturers.”

The next challenge, Coast said, is to show more manufacturers how to phase in technology so it is both manageable and profitable. It’s a challenge the Michigan Technology Center has undertaken. “We have a lab where manufacturers can come in and look at the technology. We want to break down the barriers that are out there,” Coast said. “In the past, we’d never done projects like this. Our No. 1 issue is that we can’t find skilled workers.”

A major point of discussion is demonstrating the benefits of redeploying workers by integrating automation and robotics into an existing plant to take away mundane or dangerous work and better utilize human personnel.

“We need to be able to go in and work with companies,” Coast said. “You may have to buy some new equipment and start to implement the technology. There are cultural issues.” To that end, Michigan and other states have calculators that help show the return on investment for technology implementation.

“Reshoring just a market play. Investment is the precursor for reshoring,” said Karp. “If you are bringing your production back, do that from a cost standpoint. When you invest in your people, you are able to make yourself more competitive.”

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