Editor's note: This article was published in the Record-Eagle's Momentum '18 special publication. For more stories from northern Michigan's economic engine click here to read Momentum in its entirety online.

Manufacturing in the Grand Traverse region … really?

While I would like to think the last several years of effort have moved the public beyond this sentiment, visitors and many residents alike are still surprised to learn our region is home to hundreds of manufacturers. Ranging in scope from suppliers of auto, aerospace, and machined parts to high-tech sensors, fabric sewers and food and beverage processors, all of them sell products nationally and many worldwide.

Annual activities such as Manufacturing Day and the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Summit are increasing the visibility of local industries and careers in order to attract our youth to critically important roles for the community.

These jobs are the higher-pay and better-benefit positions, which are crucial to our community’s economic health. The Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council, along with member companies, are active in supporting programs such as First Robotics competitions, Quarkmine (a local company promoting STEM education), and 3D printers in K-12 classrooms.

Last October, 547 students from 14 schools toured 33 manufacturers on Manufacturing Day. The event shows students how their classroom learning is applied in the workplace. Events like these have resulted in a better public understanding of some of the great things that are manufactured and processed in our region and the future job opportunities for these students.

So what’s next? The answer is Industry 4.0!

Industry 4.0 is the next industrial revolution. It is being spurred on primarily by the rapid growth in cloud computing and the falling cost of technology. In short, Industry 4.0 is the merging of people, machines, technology and “the cloud.” Its name comes from the history of past industrial revolutions:

— 1780s: Industrial Revolution 1.0 was based on mechanical production equipment driven by water and steam.

— 1870s: Industrial Revolution 2.0 was based on mass production enabled by the division of labor and the use of electricity.

— 1960s: Industrial Revolution 3.0 was based on the use of electronics and computers to further automate production.

— Today: Industrial Revolution 4.0 is based on the use of cyber-physical systems, the merging of computing power and secure cloud data with sensors and robotic machines.

The future is indeed bright! The majority of people have more computing power in their smartphones than existed in the biggest computers of only a few decades ago. Just think — you can order just about anything through an online retailer and have it show up at your door the next day.

Likewise, businesses are beginning to link their information systems all the way up the supply chain to production — or even raw materials reordering — as you, the customer, pulls product from their shelf.

Traverse City is home to the forerunners of Industry 3.0 — back to 1947 when John Parsons and Frank Stulen developed Numerical Control (NC) in order to machine helicopter blades. This technology evolved into Computer Numerical Control (CNC) used in manufacturing all over the world today, and is a necessary part of Industry 4.0.

The Grand Traverse region already is home to companies that are linking with customers and suppliers electronically, controlling inventory and production quality using computers, and building parts and assemblies using robots.

But less sophisticated companies need not panic, as there are 4.0 technologies using low-cost sensors and motors that can be applied to existing equipment to make dramatic gains in quality through better controlling their processes.

The challenge for the coming decade is that companies will change — forced by competition to make products faster, with higher quality, at lower cost, and all in a secure cloud environment. Likewise, the jobs will change, as they have for each industrial revolution in the past.

The message to companies is to begin using low-cost technology in smarter ways to improve quality, cost and delivery to customers. This can include an endless mix of the following:

— Retrofitting existing equipment with information-gathering sensors for real-time data on quality and quantity

— Replacing equipment to improve productivity or quality

— Upgrading ERP software systems to communicate directly with equipment, suppliers and customers

— Improving advanced manufacturing skills for current employees

— Accelerating new product introductions and shortening time from concept to production

— Creating closer partnerships with customers and suppliers

— Developing digital connections to physical assets and supply chains

The message to parents and students is: “This is not your father’s or mother’s manufacturing job.”

Today’s youth must have STEM skills — along with a comfort for innovating and the interpersonal and teamwork skills to apply new solutions — to make the most of their future.

These are truly exciting times as we watch our children enter and lead the next industrial revolution and to solve the challenges of their time.

Richard Wolin is the director of training for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center at Northwestern Michigan College.

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