Haven Allen is CEO and co-founder of mHUB, a leading hardtech and manufacturing innovation center, and is a managing partner of mHUB’s $15M Seed-stage product impact fund. Allen is an entrepreneur and technology strategist who most recently concentrated on growing the manufacturing industry and strengthening its community throughout the greater Chicago area. Allen spoke late last year with editor in chief Thomas Wilk about some of the ways that mHUB is helping drive the next generation of digital plants, as well as connecting workers with training and job opportunities.
This article is part of our monthly Big Picture Interview column. Read more interviews from our monthly Big Picture series.
PS: Several inflection points have come together in the past year. First you’ve got the COVID pandemic, and then you’ve got people who are rethinking energy plans in the wake of a new administration that has rejoined the Paris climate agreements. And then, there’s the Industry 4.0 transformation in general. What are your thoughts on how industry handles all these inflection points at the same time?
HA: First, a general realignment of supply chains is going to happen globally because of COVID. I’ve witnessed the manufacturing industry be very resilient, and they’ve had to be for the last 20 years. Industry 4.0 isn’t anything new, and machine-to-machine communication, robotics, and automation have been going on for 20 to 30 years.
It’s just now, I think, price points are starting to come down, which will lead to a higher level of adoption by manufacturers. From some of the startups that are at mHUB, they’re creating plug and play solutions to incorporate sensors that enable predictive analytics, so you no longer have to completely reconfigure your lines. Manufacturers can take an existing infrastructure and use plug and play solutions, like Amper Technologies for example, and immediately be Industry 4.0. It’s a battle for productivity as it always has been, and I think the manufacturers that are going to win out are the ones that have continued to invest in continuous improvement in order to guard their trade secrets and create new ones.
PS: One of the things that we’ve noticed in talking to our readers is that some plants are either delaying going digital or they’re not sure where to start. And there’s a simultaneous trend where a lot of OEMs are embedding wireless technologies and network technologies into the machine so they can collect data on performance, simply to keep up with competitors. What are your thoughts on plants who are delaying this sort of thing? Can they stay competitive over the next 5-10 years? Or is the market making the decision for them?
HA: It’s tough because I think the big OEMs want broad visibility into the Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 suppliers, and a lot of manufacturing becomes just-in-time. Having that visibility is essential for them to do the integration that they do. I think it ultimately depends on who the manufacturer is contracting and doing work with. For example, look at the national network of advanced manufacturing institutes and specifically MxD, which is in Chicago. The Department of Defense (DoD) has put in (at least) $100 million to create that digital manufacturing center, digital twins, cybersecurity (research), and it’s being driven by the DoD and by OEMs, and then getting pushed through the supply chain.
So, I wouldn’t say it’s fine if they’re not adopting right now. Five years from now, they definitely should be aware of the technologies that are emerging and how it fits into their operations. Ten years from now, it’s just going to be required by industry to have some sort of visualization and access to the analytics. Machines are becoming pretty amazing in producing the data, so if you know how to use it, you can unlock a whole lot of value.
And when it comes to cost, three or four years ago, it would have cost $10,000 to $20,000 to do basic predictive analytics on a single CNC machine. Now you can buy a $100 sensor that plugs right in and is wireless and has a $10/month service fee. That has immediately dropped the price for everybody.
It’s an exciting time though. We always look at the price of components, the price of battery storage, the ability to store and compete in the cloud, all the technology that was developed around the cellphones. 5G is now coming online, creating more access than ever before, so more people can engage in this innovation. Over the last 13 years, technology costs have been driven down, the access has been made more profuse, and it’s enabling the creation of simple devices that you couldn’t even imagine creating because they would have been cost-prohibitive 10 years ago.