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Manufacturing's digital future: Who's needed, and what's needed, to get from here to there

March 25, 2019
The must-haves for digital manufacturing success, from military, industry, academia leaders at the MxD launch event.

You can't do it alone: If there was one (digital) thread running through the stories shared last week at the formal launch of Chicago's MxD – formerly the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute – it was that. No manufacturing entity is going to optimally evolve its business, production and workforce development models to meet the demands of an increasingly connected and digital market on its own.

Speakers and panelists at the event, held at MxD's manufacturing lab on Chicago's Goose Island, came from the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, City Colleges of Chicago, and such big industry names as Dow Chemical and Rolls-Royce. After the announcement last month of fresh federal funding for the organization-formerly-known-as-DMDII, Thursday's MxD launch event looked to highlight the projects and achievements of the manufacturing institute's members and prompt discussion about what is (and should be) on the horizon for manufacturers and their partners as they look toward the future.

Following are key quotes from those who shared their notes from the field at the launch:

"We have more than 4,000 small businesses working with us daily – they have to be successful for us to be successful." – Ademola Idowu, senior research scientist at The Dow Chemical Co.

Dow Chemical brings more than 100 billion pounds of materials into the company every year, Idowu said – some 6,000 shipments worldwide per day. And while the company has a lot of tools supporting supply-chain visibility, Idowu said, supply-chain disruption remains a threat. Bringing heads from industry and academia together at MxD is allowing for development of technologies (now in test at Dow) to better address that threat, he said.

"We are finding it's a great way to change how we reply to supply-chain disruption," Idowu said. For example, if Dow knows that hundreds of trucks carrying deliveries are set to cross a region where there's a major fire, new predictive and route-optimization technologies can help the company decide how to most efficiently respond. "We didn't have all of the solutions, but now we have a team," he said.

Beyond that project, Idowu noted, Dow Chemical also is using MxD's digital manufacturing jobs taxonomy to help define the roles and skills that the company – which employs 53,000 people worldwide – will need going forward.

"The success of our company depends on the workforce," he said. "You can develop all the technologies (you could want); if your workforce is not able to handle it, there's no future."

"Things are moving so rapidly that the important thing is the ability to innovate fast. If you can innovate faster than your competition can copy, you're in a great position." – Tom Kurfess, chief manufacturing officer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Kurfess fielded a question from an audience member about intellectual-property concerns that might arise from being part of such a collaboration-centric organization. The ideas and innovation generated by engaging with other organizations – even direct or indirect competitors – are of greater benefit than any possible risk avoided by declining to engage at all, he suggested. Tracy Frost, director of the manufacturing technology program at the U.S. Department of Defense, noted, "The whole point of these institutes is to accelerate advancement and development of technologies that have such wide application."

In another panel, Barry Chapman, vice president for the aerospace and defense industry at Siemens PLM, noted that in Siemens' work with MxD, "we've had competitors in the same room…that get together and solve a problem – they let their guard down and are trying to solve an industry problem."

Critically, collaboration can help companies move ideas to fruition and emerging technologies to implementation more quickly, ORNL's Kurfess said – an imperative when it comes to remaining competitive.

"The speed is really such that if you're not on the train, you're really losing out," he said.

"I'm not worried about the 18- to 22-year-olds. The ones who are going to have the biggest struggle are the ones who are older than that. … At the end of the day, when someone has a job to do and you introduce a new tool to them and it's digital, that's hard." – Barry Chapman, Siemens

Replying to a question from MxD Executive Director Chandra Brown about the biggest challenge facing U.S. manufacturing, Chapman cited workforce development as a leading pinch point. And workforce development isn't just about ensuring there's a robust pool of talent to enter the industry today or five or 10 years from now; it's about dedicating time and effort and resources to ensuring that those who've been in the industry for decades are able to make – and are making – the changes that leadership is asking them to make. "It's something we're going to have to address if we're going to expand digital strategies," he said.

The challenge of change management, as tools and processes become increasingly digitized and the "digital trail" becomes more important than ever, isn't just an issue at the technician level, either; it permeates throughout an organization and should be addressed at all levels. "You have the innovation clashing with the culture, and that's been a challenge," said keynote speaker William Bray, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for research, development, test and evaluation. Creating an environment of transparency and giving experts on the ground (rather than higher-ups in an office) the authority and responsibility to make decisions about the tools they need can build trust in the organization and cultivate on-the-ground innovation, he noted.

Idowu, in an earlier panel, offered this take on what he's seeing at Dow: "We have people who have been around so long…they are asking, am I still going to be able to do my job in two years or five years? We want to be able to answer their questions, (and) give them opportunity to get retrained and move into new roles and continue to be engaged."

"If we can't get the entry points smooth enough, I'm not sure that we're going to get the workforce that we need." – Juan Salgado, chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago

"Our young people are searching for opportunities to be inspired, to engage in their learning, to put learning to practical use," Salgado said. And work-based learning experiences – including but not limited to internships and apprenticeships – are the ideal vehicle for achieving this, he suggested. But too many students in City Colleges of Chicago's trade programs, he said, are completing their schooling without having had these experiences. Industry can do more to connect with local community college systems to give students a chance to see where their education and training can take them, Salgado suggested. "We set a goal that 50% of our program completers have work-based learning experience; currently it's 10%" he noted. "The big word here is cooperation and collaboration…we have been so siloed, to the detriment of everybody."

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