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Published in Manufacturing

State funding nudges manufacturers into Industry 4.0

BY Sunday, July 04, 2021 05:10pm

As the owner of two West Michigan-based manufacturing operations, Jay Garside is leaning on state resources to usher his businesses along their Industry 4.0 journeys.

Garside owns Schoolcraft-based Outwears Inc., a 40-year-old company that manufactures filtration products for performance motorsports applications. He also owns Dowagiac-based J.A.C. Custom Pouches Inc., a provider of pockets, pouches and pads for industries that range from medical to aviation.

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Both companies recently completed state-funded Industry 4.0 technology assessments — which typically cost $1,600 — through the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC). During the process, MMTC experts administer a 40-question survey and complete a site visit to assess how a company is using technology within its operations. A subsequent summary report shows the business owner how to unlock improvements and increase efficiency through automation and other forms of Industry 4.0 technologies.

The MMTC team also produces a personalized implementation plan showing business owners a step-by-step path to addressing return on investment opportunities.

While many understaffed manufacturers are exploring automation and technology as a way to fill gaps left behind by workforce shortages, Garside also viewed the MMTC assessment as a way to modernize.

“We’re in an aging industry, and the skill set isn’t being taught in schools or trade schools,” he said. “We were looking at how we can enhance or upgrade the skill set.”

While the MMTC assessment didn’t reveal any monumental inefficiencies, Garside said it did help his teams to better analyze available data and make incremental changes to slowly automate mundane and menial tasks that were still available.

“I don’t want it to be construed that automation is replacing people or taking people’s jobs — that’s actually not it,” said Garside, who mentioned his companies are understaffed by about 10 percent. “Automation will allow the higher-value skills to focus on higher-value tasks and take some of those mundane tasks and automate them. That’s what we’re working on now: What can we pull out of the system and automate?”

New resources

At the end of 2020, the Michigan Strategic Fund approved $2 million for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to solicit regional grant proposals from eligible organizations that are interested in increasing Industry 4.0 awareness and readiness among local manufacturers.

The state eventually spread that money across 10 organizations throughout Michigan. This included $92,797 for Lakeshore Advantage, which assists businesses in Ottawa and Allegan counties with growth opportunities.

The organization teamed up with The Right Place Inc., Greater Muskegon Economic Development (GMED) and the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West to submit the grant application.

Amanda Murray, vice president of business solutions for Lakeshore Advantage, said the funds would be used to conduct an Industry 4.0 readiness poll in addition to launching an educational campaign.

Establishing a baseline to gauge where a majority of local manufacturers are in their Industry 4.0 journeys is crucial for crafting future initiatives and strategies, according to Murray.

“We’re a data-driven organization — we never want to just say that we’re going to create a program because we think it will work and kind of throw things at the wall to see what sticks,” she said. “We really want to make sure we’re leveraging our resources and time in the best way possible.”

Ultimately, Murray said that widespread Industry 4.0 adoption among small and medium-size manufacturers will make each business — and the region as a whole — more competitive.

The Manufacturing Growth Alliance (MGA) also received $271,851 for its efforts in Region 8 of the state, which includes Southwest Michigan. The statewide organization maintains offices in Benton Harbor and Lansing.

“I would say the pandemic has accelerated the need for new technologies, whether it’s because of workforce (problems) or to remain competitive regionally, nationally and globally,” said MGA Executive Director Jennifer Deamud. “Throughout the pandemic, I think manufacturers, and all types of business, have opened their eyes to the fact that this is the path to go down.”

Funded by the MEDC grant, MGA’s regional plan starts with outreach, awareness and education. The organization will also provide an in-depth financial analysis to 30 different manufacturers, a service that includes a business valuation and analyzes whether a company
is in a good position to invest in new technology.

The Manufacturing Growth Alliance will also provide a small number of manufacturers with $10,000 in matching funds when implementing Industry 4.0 technologies.

“Workforce is absolutely what is opening the eyes of many small manufacturers,” Deamud said. “The state doesn’t desire to replace jobs with new technologies. But, new technologies provide manufacturing facilities the capacity to do more to train their team members on new skills and, at the end of the day, pay their teams.” 

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