Despite Industrial Tech’s Growing Sophistication, US Adoption Lags

This week, Detroit is hosting SME’s RAPID + TCT event, a conference and trade show dedicated to additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing. It’s the first time the conference, which draws attendees from across the world, has been held in Detroit since 2014.

Maria Conrado, SME’s senior event manager, says the conference has grown by leaps and bounds as additive manufacturing has been on the upswing. “Automotive companies are increasingly looking at 3D printing as part of the [manufacturing] process,” she says. “There’s a big push down through the supply chain.”

3D printing itself has become more sophisticated in both the materials that can be used—metals and alloys, for example—and the projects that can be taken on. 3D printing is considered a form of additive manufacturing, which has primarily been used for prototyping in the past. However, that’s changing; additive manufacturing is increasingly being integrated on the factory floor for bigger production jobs, often saving companies time and money while offering more production flexibility. (A quick note on terminology: 3D printing and additive manufacturing refer to essentially the same thing, but industry professionals often prefer to use the phrase additive manufacturing.)

Another trend in the 3D printing industry, Conrado says, is the growing prevalence of women. “So many women are on the forefront of this technology and on the cutting edge of how it’s developed, adopted, and changed. The number of women in manufacturing has grown exponentially over the past decade, she says—the highest rate of growth since the mid-1990s.

“The manufacturing industry as a whole is really changing,” Conrado continues. “A lot of people used to think of it as being a dark, dirty, dangerous job.” That’s changing with the emergence of new technologies and tech-enabled facilities that more closely resemble large, pristine labs than the cavernous, chaotic industrial settings of the past. More students being exposed to STEM disciplines is also helping to change perceptions, she says.

This year’s RAPID + TCT conference included a “Shark Tank”-like startup pitch contest, in which industry judges narrowed down the field of competitors to a group of finalists, and the event’s audience selecting the two winners. Organizers also scanned a couple of the Motor City’s iconic downtown buildings to be 3D-printed in miniature on the exhibition floor.

Although the conference has been in existence for about 30 years, Conrado says it was important to bring it back to Detroit as the manufacturing industry is on the precipice of a lot of technological change. Automation, 3D printing, robotics, and other innovations are revolutionizing the sector, she says.

“Detroit is the Mecca of manufacturing, and we want it to stay that way,” she says. “Part of the reason we’re having the conference here is because we need for suppliers and manufacturers across the industry to [modernize operations] or they’ll be left behind. We don’t want it to be scary, with people thinking robots are taking over. We need Detroit companies to adopt smart technology or we won’t stay competitive—it’s not just about implementing new technologies, but having a skilled workforce.”

Those goals are in line with findings from a new report published earlier this month by Automation Alley, a Michigan-based nonprofit manufacturing and technology business association. The report looks at industrial tech adoption, the Industry 4.0 ecosystem, and includes a new velocity index measuring the maturity and investment potential for new technologies. The report’s data is gathered all year from a number of sources, including Automation Alley’s corporate partners and American and Canadian universities.

“What gives me pause is that I still think—outside of Tier 1 suppliers and automakers—the supply chain is not moving fast enough,” says Tom Kelley, Automation Alley’s executive director and CEO. “Leadership is not understanding the pace of change and is not making plans to ameliorate the risks of not moving to Industry 4.0. What keeps me up at night is trying to get the [Midwest] region to understand the pace of change outside of our region.”

Kelly says the report is designed to help manufacturers, educators, and policy makers keep up with this rapid technological change. It revolves around the eight core technologies that make up Industry 4.0: the industrial Internet of Things, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, cybersecurity, additive manufacturing and advanced materials, and modeling, simulation, visualization, and immersion.

The report’s key findings show there is work to be done:

—Companies need to understand Industry 4.0 concepts. By now, they should be familiar with these concepts and have thought about how or if they’ll implement them, but the report suggests that many organizations have not yet made this first fundamental assessment.

—Companies must come up with a plan for implementing Industry 4.0 tech and study how it will bring a return on investment.

—With thousands of open manufacturing jobs across the country, successful Industry 4.0 adoption will depend on trained, highly skilled employees and a “people-centered” culture that celebrates perpetual innovation. Manufacturers currently risk underappreciating and underinvesting in these areas.

—Companies must approach implementing Industry 4.0 innovations holistically rather than product by product or department by department.

—Manufacturing companies need to explore partnerships, alliances, and public-private ventures to make Industry 4.0 a reality. Many of these businesses likely lack the capital and deep technical expertise to plan and execute adoption on their own.

Despite the warnings issued by the report, Kelly is hopeful that the manufacturing industry has begun to turn a corner and take Industry 4.0 adoption more seriously. “We’re starting to see a spark of change,” he says. “I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I felt that this year’s event revealing the report was different—the energy and conversations were different. I felt less discouraged. Everybody was talking about it, and that brings me great hope.”

Kelly attributes the slow rate of change in part to the way manufacturing corporations reacted to the recession a decade ago. Instead of taking on risk, many companies just banked their increased profits once the economy started humming.

“When we would tell them they need to be focused on Industry 4.0, they used to say they just didn’t have the time or the staff,” Kelly explains. “This is anecdotal, but it seems like they’ve started thinking about how they’re going to participate.”

Underpinning the slow rate of industrial technology adoption, Kelly says, is the country’s approach to education and workforce training. “I preach all the time that we need to get better at virtualizing education. You have to get out of the model where training is something a physical cohort does together, and then you get a certificate or degree. We suffer from a lack of imagination, and we need to move much, much faster.”

Kelly would like to see more programs that allow students to take equipment like virtual reality headsets home and conduct training modules at their own pace and on their own time. “If you gamify it and offer a cash prize, kids will spend hundreds of hours to win the game,” he says. “It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than spending $10,000 per student.”

Kelly hopes to see more dialogue between software and manufacturing companies, as well as an increased appetite among government officials and policy makers to create workforce development programs that “take educated risks but don’t bet the farm.”

Kelly says Automation Alley is striving to turn the spark of Industry 4.0 interest into action to build a groundswell of early adopters.

“I think Michigan is a little to a lot behind—not from the US perspective, but compared to Europe, Mexico, and China,” Kelly maintains. “We need to take action and not just talk about how cool these technologies are. We have no national strategy, and we need to understand that these other countries view winning as leapfrogging over the US. We’re not taking competitive risks as seriously as we should, but the only things holding us back are apathy and a lack of understanding.”

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