As a manufacturer with a reputation for skating the cutting edge of technology, Whirlpool Corp. leverages relationships with organizations and researchers globally to uncover emerging technology capable of transforming its operations.
“I think one of the things we focused on more recently is not going after necessarily the latest technology but the technology that is transformational in the long run,” Leonel Leal, Whirlpool’s director of global advanced manufacturing engineering, told MiBiz.
The Benton Harbor-based appliance manufacturer can look closer to home to find these emerging tehcnologies thanks to an Industry 4.0 accelerator program created last year, a collaboration of three Michigan-based, manufacturing technology-focused entities.
Whirlpool is the only West Michigan-based corporate partner for the Industry 4.0 accelerator program, which is powered by Troy-based resource center Automation Alley, Jackson-based manufacturing technology accelerator Lean Rocket Lab, and Lawrence Technological University’s Centrepolis Accelerator.
As the only Industry 4.0 accelerator in North America, and one of the few in the world, the program seeks to bring the top innovators from around the globe to Michigan by investing in their businesses and providing coaching and resources. One of the most important components is establishing a foot inside the door of an impressive list of Michigan-headquartered corporate partners, which includes names like Denso Corp., Magna International Inc. and Whirlpool.
When it came to finding a high-profile corporate partner for its growing ecosystem, Whirlpool stuck out.
“For us, it was two things: Whirlpool is certainly already recognized as an industry leader. They’re an innovative company. We always use their products — probably every day,” said Ken Seneff, co-founder of Lean Rocket Lab. “Second was their focus and their willingness to look at new technology. Whirlpool, from our impression, had a very strategic mindset for how they’re going to take their manufacturing operations into the future.”
For corporate partners, the arrangement is mutually beneficial, as Michigan-based manufacturers get first crack at innovations that range from AI-fueled technologies to machine vision.
Whirlpool’s Leal said his team has carefully plotted a roadmap to operational excellence, and in doing so, is able to find the current gaps in its operation. With this knowledge, Whirlpool can lean on the Industry 4.0 accelerator program, among other resources, to find technology to fill those gaps.
“We already know where we see gaps, therefore we’re not just going after something we hear for the first time,” Leal said. “We’re pretty strategic in the areas we know we want to advance in.”
Leal said Whirlpool is in talks with a number of the startups associated with the Industry 4.0 accelerator program, and that the company is especially interested in technology capable of documenting continued efficiency on production lines, including finding opportunities to improve manual operations.
“A lot of manual operations are hard to build connectivity with, but when you’re able to then apply some of these solutions that can monitor manual operations, that’s a great opportunity to see and learn,” Leal said.
Whirlpool is in talks with a startup called Invisible AI, which was co-founded two years ago by University of Michigan graduate Prateek Sachdeva, who is also Invisible AI’s chief operating officer.
The company has created AI-enabled cameras that watch assembly workers to spot mistakes or inefficiencies during manual assembly processes. The camera monitors wrist, hand and body movements — the assembler does not have to wear sensors — to determine if the assembler has deviated from the standard assembly process.
The company was founded in the Bay Area but established a second office in Ann Arbor. Its Midwest operations will be based in Michigan going forward.
“I enjoyed that one,” Leal said of Invisible AI. “We’re looking to work with them on deploying some pilots with Invisible AI. That’s a very promising one that I think is applicable in a lot of operations where you have manual operations and manual processes.”
Whirlpool has a rigid process for testing new innovations before they can be built into its operations. This includes pilot, trial, deployment and roll out phases.
During the pilot and trial phases, Whirlpool takes time to learn how the technology can be applied to specific processes and how it might play a role in the broader scope of its manufacturing operations.
“We always think of the global aspect — not just for that particular factory,” Leal said. “We try to look at how this is going to impact (Whirlpool) overall.”
Foot in the door
For Sachdeva, whose professional history is rooted in self-driving cars, getting in with big-name manufacturers is crucial for Invisible AI. By his account, it’s just one of the many benefits that the Industry 4.0 accelerator has provided.
“It’s very hard to get access to customers like that,” Sachdeva said. “Manufacturing is a slow-moving industry. Finding the right people is definitely valuable. The accelerator has done a great job to provide resources on all fronts. Finding even small customers to talk to is incredibly valuable because we want to build a technology that helps everyone, not just the big players.”
While Sachdeva deferred to Whirlpool for any details on Invisible AI’s relationship with the company, he did say that Whirlpool fits the mold for what AI is looking for right now to prove its value.
“It’s tough to find innovative players in manufacturing who are willing to move fast because that’s what’s required to be a successful startup — that velocity,” Sachdeva said. “Other partners we’ve talked to have had the same experience.”
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