West Michigan manufacturers are dealing with a host of issues, ranging from trade and tariffs to talent and technology. As they wade through those challenges, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West is there to help, according to Regional Director Justine Burdette. As MMTC seeks to “maintain that closeness and relationships with our manufacturers,” the organization is finding new ways to adapt and address their needs, she said.
What are some of the issues you’re hearing from manufacturers as they’re thinking about next year?
I think that there are a lot of larger headwinds that are happening. Who hasn’t been affected by the trade and tariffs? We just had an election. We are still trying to figure out who actually is going to be in charge in Lansing, who are our contacts, what are their agendas, what’s going to be accomplished in the next session. We have had some proposals pass. Right now, businesses are concerned. I think they understand that right now, there’s just a lot of uncertainty happening as we wait for additional things to shake out, between now and the first quarter of next year, before real pen hits paper and we actually start talking about how is this manifesting itself on a day-to-day basis. There is a general uncertainty right now and just some general caution.
Will this uncertainty put a damper on manufacturers’ plans?
I don’t think that people are making a lot of moves, just because we have no idea what’s coming down the pike or how it’s really going to manifest itself and really work down to the shop floor and the everyday.
On top of these challenges, companies are also facing change with Industry 4.0. How should West Michigan manufacturers be thinking about the next technological revolution?
Industry 4.0, in my mind, is really the ‘what’s next’ of continuous improvement and lean. I love to see that parts of Industry 4.0 are actually tackling that decade-long integration between continuously improving and running a top-notch quality management system. … When you try to improve something, you have to change it. Well, you’re naturally now at odds with quality management systems. My personal philosophy is that those two things can actually co-exist together. I think that some of our manufacturers are waking up to that reality and using some Industry 4.0 tools to do that.
What do you see as some of the smart investment strategies for companies?
Certainly, the front runners are manufacturers who are actually spending time and working from a high level down throughout their entire organization with C-suite support on their cyber security. They are not waiting until an incident hits them and then just quietly resolving it. They are actively going out and talking to people in their I.T. department and whoever their external provider is. They also are looking at their entire business and for those vulnerabilities and developing a plan of how to shore up what we have right now.
It seems like Industry 4.0 can be overwhelming for executives. How should they start?
I think it’s starting small. Industry 4.0 has this really bad rap for being this huge ubiquitous thing that’s hard for our small to medium sized manufacturers to tap into. And that’s not really true. It can be scalable. It can be manageable. Pick something, it doesn’t matter if it’s just one production cell, just one production line. Pick something that makes sense for you.
Do you see a model for adoption from other sectors?
They’ve been using this in I.T. for years: Scale fast, scale cheap. Do the same thing in manufacturing. If it’s a vision system that will help you shave time off of your quality management on the back end, great, do that. See what kind of results that gets you. If it’s networking just a couple of your CNC machines together, great. Decide a couple of data points that you want to pull off of it and see what your machines are telling you. Think about how you’d use that information to better inform some of your business decisions.
What are the best practices for implementing the technologies without disrupting the entire company?
Firstly, you would start like with any other type of change: Be thoughtful about how you’re going to roll it out. I’m always an advocate for creating buy-in on the front end, as opposed to just pushing something out to your entire workforce and asking them to either get on board or get out. That doesn’t go over well in the 21st Century.
Get some people from the shop floor, get someone from accounting, customer service. … Ask for their feedback and what they think the company should start with, and then go from there. Talk about what’s possible.
How should manufacturers be thinking about ROI with these technologies?
Certainly, anytime you have these conversations, ROI always comes up. I would say those are really individual type things. For your particular business, you’ve got to decide what’s the best payback for you and then what time frame. Decide what you’re going to do, decide how you’re going to measure it, and for how long. And then do it, get back together and talk about the results. I would advocate that kind of process. Plan, do, check, act, and adapt. We’ve been doing that in manufacturing for 50 years. There is no reason we should deviate from that proven process for this.
Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard.