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Industry 4.0: Michigan poised to usher in new era of manufacturing

A 2014 Impala driving off the line at Oshawa Assembly.
General Motors
A 2014 Impala driving off the line at Oshawa Assembly.

The Next Idea

Around the world, Michigan is known as a state that makes things. And the way we make things is about to undergo a massive shift – so massive, in fact, that experts are calling it the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0.

If you remember your history lessons, the first Industrial Revolution was marked by mechanization, water power and steam power – think the steam engine. The second was marked by mass production, the assembly line and electricity – think Henry Ford and the conveyer belt. The third was marked by computers and automation and is sometimes referred to as the digital revolution. The fourth revolution will be marked by cyber-physical systems – basically, systems that create a digital copy of the physical world that can be manipulated with little to no risk.

Industry 4.0 is the marriage of the physical world and the digital world. It’s a concept that got its start in Germany, and it’s now becoming part of the manufacturing conversation around the world, but so far it’s been slow to catch on in the U.S. In this new era of making things, sensors at every step of the manufacturing process provide manufacturers with real-world data. This can be used to create models and run simulations in the digital world, allowing for continuous improvement, significant cost savings and a myriad of other benefits. In an Industry 4.0 factory, or “smart factory,” machines, devices, sensors and people are all interconnected and can communicate with each other. Digital systems work both autonomously and in collaboration with humans.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, Industry 4.0 is an umbrella term for nine technology trends that are already making waves in the manufacturing world: the cloud, cybersecurity, the Industrial Internet of Things, horizontal and vertical system integration, simulation, autonomous robots, big data and analytics, augmented reality and additive manufacturing.

In the face of this new era of manufacturing, Michigan has both an opportunity and a challenge. As a leading center for manufacturing expertise and talent, Michigan has the opportunity to lead the nation as early adopters of factory automation technology and as the launching point for Industry 4.0 in America. Our state can become the go-to place for Industry 4.0 expertise and talent. As the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is working to brand the state as “Planet M” (the worldwide leader in mobility and transportation technology), manufacturers in these and other industries can unite under the umbrella of Industry 4.0.

However, like every other state, Michigan is struggling to bridge the gap between the talent that is needed and the talent that is available. Michigan must take on the challenge of attracting, developing, and retaining a workforce equipped with the skills needed by Industry 4.0 companies. Skills that will be in high demand by manufacturers over the next decade include data management, data security, software development and programming. In order for Michigan to have the workforce it needs to support the manufacturing industry in the coming years, we need to encourage our students to pursue educational opportunities and career paths that align with these skill sets. And we need to change the perception of manufacturing jobs as dirty, low-skill and low-wage.


In addition, if there’s going to be a manufacturing industry in Michigan in the years to come, small and medium-sized manufacturers must recognize the benefits of these new technologies and implement them. But the road to becoming a smart factory is long and complex, especially for those companies that, for decades, have been doing business the same way, using the same technologies. While large corporations have the resources and expertise to adopt these new technologies on their own, smaller companies will need assistance.

That’s where Automation Alley comes in. Founded in 1999 to shine a spotlight on Southeast Michigan as a leading center for technical talent and expertise in America, Automation Alley aims to serve as a resource and a guide for local small and medium-sized manufacturers as they chart a course toward Industry 4.0. We have partnered with industry thought leaders like Siemens, Tata Technologies, Autodesk and PTC in order to provide opportunities for knowledge-sharing with Michigan’s smaller manufacturers and suppliers. We can be a knowledge bridge between the large and the smaller companies to help move the state forward into Industry 4.0.

Here are some examples of how that works. In one case, Automation Alley has partnered with Tata Technologies to provide our members with discounted training in computer-aided design software such as CATIA, Autodesk Inventor and NX. We’ve also partnered with SME to provide our members with access to online manufacturing training through Tooling U – SME. And we’ve partnered with several local companies to offer small and medium-sized manufacturers access to cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, including 3D printers and scanners.

So what are the consequences if Michigan’s small and medium-sized manufacturers fail to embrace these new technologies? They will most certainly be left behind. They will lose out to competitors who are already beginning their journey toward becoming smart factories. And one day, Michigan will no longer be the place where things are made. Clearly, there’s a lot at stake. And if we do succeed at becoming the leading state for smart manufacturing? We will win back many of the manufacturing jobs we lost to low-wage countries like Mexico and China a decade ago. With automation, factories around the world will require less labor than the factories of the past, but Michigan factories will have the competitive advantage of proximity to large customers, not to mention a history of innovation and reputation for quality. In the end, Industry 4.0 can be a net jobs creator for the state of Michigan and a way to make use of our rich manufacturing experience and expertise now and in the years to come.

Tom Kelly is the COO of Automation Alley, and will be Executive Director effective Aug. 27. Automation Alley is a Michigan technology business association. 

Our conversation with Tom Kelly on Stateside

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Tom Kelly