A lightly edited transcript follows:
Mary: Welcome to Design World’s Executive Edition where we speak with leaders of manufacturers, OEMs and other engineering companies. I’m Mary Gannon. Today I’m joined by Tom Kelly, Executive Director and CEO of Automation Alley. Thanks for being here today, Tom.
Tom: Thanks for having me, Mary.
Mary: Over the past two years Tom has been the driving force behind Automation Alley’s transformation into Michigan’s Industry 4.0 Knowledge Center and is a nationally and globally recognized expert on the smart manufacturing revolution and its impact on business. Last month I had a chance to attend Automation Alley’s second annual Integr8 Conference where attendees learned how Industry 4.0 was evolving and changing the industrial world.
Mary: So we thought it would be a great time to talk with Tom and learn about the organization’s efforts and how they plan to move forward in Michigan. So let’s just jump right into it, Tom. Can you tell us a little bit about Automation Alley, how it got started and where it’s going?
Tom: Absolutely Mary. So Automation Alley began as a regional business consortium for Southeast Michigan technology and manufacturing companies and that was back in 1999, so we have almost a 20 year history. We’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary next year.
Mary: Oh wow.
Tom: But today we’ve morphed into an organization that really focused on preparing Michigan manufacturers for the smart factory revolution that we’re all talking about known as Industry 4.0. So Industry 4.0 for your listeners is kind of defined as the convergence of the digital and physical technologies on the factory floor. So think sensors, big data, the Cloud, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality.
There’s so many things we can talk about, but we are Michigan’s Industry 4.0 Knowledge Center. Small and medium sized manufacturers in particular really have to embrace these new technologies in order to remain competitive, so where we’re going as an organization is we plan to expand in 2019 not just in manufacturing, but into other industries such as agriculture and healthcare because all of these industries are being impacted by Industry 4.0.
Mary: Absolutely. It’s just a huge growing movement. You talked a bit about how you were Michigan-based. Do you kind of plan to grow your presence regionally and nationally or even globally at all?
Tom: Absolutely. So we’re based in Detroit but we’re actually a regional organization by our inception. Today we’re actually a Michigan organization, so we bill ourselves as Michigan’s Industry 4.0 Knowledge Center and we actually support the entire manufacturing community throughout the state.
What’s really exciting is this year we entered into a partnership with the World Economic Forum and this is important because they really bring two things for us. One is they help to validate our roadmap and the progress we’re making in this Industry 4.0. I should back up and say the World Economic Forum is really one of the global leaders. They call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Klaus Schwab, their founder, is really one of the early drivers of understanding this massive change that’s coming.
So they help us validate our roadmap that we’re employing and they also give us a huge platform globally with which to tell our story about how the Midwest in America is really driving change related to Industry 4.0.
Mary: It’s pretty exciting.
Tom: It is. We’re so excited about it. You know, I should also remind you, you attended our Integr8 Conference …
Tom: … and that’s something that in partnership with the World Economic Forum really brings attention and a voice to the Midwest, to Michigan about Industry 4.0 is not just happening on the coast. It’s actually being driven by what’s happening in the Midwest and the manufacturing base that’s here, because after all, it is about manufacturing.
Mary: Absolutely and being from a heavy manufacturing city myself, I think that’s an exciting and a great thing to hear for us.
Tom: That’s right. Cleveland and Detroit are in it together.
Mary: Absolutely. We have to be.
Tom: True to the end. You got it. That’s right.
Mary: At the conference, and you just kind of mentioned it before, you kind of talked a little bit about AI, artificial intelligence. How do you kind of see AI and the IOT or Industry 4.0 growing up together?
Tom: Well, that’s a great question. So artificial intelligence is about sort of machine learning and being able to understand the environment that’s happening as a human would but through a machine and then be able to make decisions. Sensors, the IOT side of the equation, they’re the things that actually are the five senses of AI, like we have five senses, and so they have to grow up together.
What’s nice is when you put the sensors on the machine, they generate the data. AI needs that data to then make decisions off of what those machines are doing. So they have to go hand in hand. What’s happening is as AI gets more sophisticated and sensors get cheaper, you have this convergence that is pushing down into the smallest manufacturers. So if you’re a small manufacturer, you need to pay attention to what’s happening because you can get sensors now for your machines that might cost 50, $100 and will feed right to your smartphone as the owner or the plant manager and give you real time data of what’s happening.
It’s really revolutionary, but most of the manufacturers that are small, because they’re so darn busy getting product out the door, they’re not paying attention to what’s happening and they really need to stop for a moment and stick their head up and look around and see what’s going on.
Mary: I think some small manufacturers are concerned about security, about data breaches and all that. How can those kind of companies manage their IOT platform securely? How can we work with them on that do you think?
Tom: Oh, that’s another great question. The problem that we have as smalls is there is no small that is sophisticated or wealthy enough to manage their own security, so the first thing I would say is don’t even think you’re going to do that. Because of technology, because of the ability to have your data and interaction with manufacturing floor up in the Cloud, smalls need to bring in professionals that say, “We’re going to push this data to the Cloud,” and the Cloud, because these are great big companies like a Microsoft or an Amazon or a Google, they have very sophisticated systems, much better than you will ever have to be able to manage that data.
So what we say to our members and our small manufacturers is bring in a professional and it’s not going to cost a lot of money. It’s actually going to be much cheaper than you think. So the whole point of having sensors on your machines is to get at the data. If you try to start building systems local to your shop to control that data, you’re just asking for trouble. Push that data right to the Cloud.
Mary: Absolutely. The Cloud is a big part of it, absolutely. Where do you see in the near future, obviously we’re not going to talk 10 years out, but in the next couple years, the future of the Industry 4.0 movement? Where do you see manufacturers are really going to be able to take advantage of it?
Tom: Well, in a number of fronts. The very biggest are working very quickly to understand what’s happening and they have the money and the people to do it. As you come down the supply chain and the suppliers get smaller, they don’t have the money or the people. They run very lean as it is, but what’s happening is things like IOT, sensors are getting smaller and cheaper and easy to use and there’s no excuse not to buy something and start to learn because it doesn’t impact the production process. It’s just generating data.
So we encourage our members just buy something. Just go out there and do it and don’t be afraid to fail. Say, “Hey, I’m going to put a sensor on that machine, measure vibration, see what I learn.” If that bearing starts to fail, maybe the vibration changes and I can see that on my phone and boy, once I understand what to look for, now I’m going to put those sensors on all my machines because they don’t cost very much.
Or if you look at another real disruptive technology in Industry 4.0 is 3D printing. There are many small manufacturers that don’t know the current state of the art for 3D printing, and I encourage all of them to understand is this a threat to my business? It may not be a threat today, but I better understand what point do I think personally 3D printing will be a threat to my business and then how do I prepare for that? Is it five years away, 10 years away, 20 years away? You make that call because you’re the business owner, but you have to have the understanding of where 3D printing is today for you to make that call. Most of them don’t. They don’t know the current state of the art of what’s possible.
Mary: Absolutely. I think when you’re kind of talking about people having a fear of Industry 4.0 or that threat, I think it even goes down to the people. I think some people are kind of afraid of the technology. Can you talk a little bit about the changing job landscape and how manufacturers can embrace connected industry and still maintain their employees’ job safety or I guess you could say I think people are a little bit worried about their jobs in this moving and changing landscape.
Tom: Well, there’s no question that we have to up-skill our workforce. For sure, we have to do that. Industry 4.0 is going to change the way people work. People are already beginning to work alongside collaborative robots, so artificial intelligence by definition will mean we’ll need many more people to analyze data and make decisions. We have examples of small manufacturers here in Michigan, and I’m sure the same is true in Ohio, of about these smalls that are beginning to use collaborative robots. We have a great example of workers were very resistant and then as they started to work alongside these robots they went, “Wow, these things are pretty darn useful.” The company actually has more people employed today than they had because guess why. They can now fulfill more orders.
Tom: Right? Most manufacturers are limited as you know, Amy. They’re limited by the orders they can take. They say, “God, I’m full up. If I just had more people I could actually make more money, but I can’t find the people.” Well, this is where automation comes in, right? The perfect use of that.
Mary: That’s a great way to look at it.
Tom: Yeah, I think so. I think people should not be fearful, especially in America because as we begin to automate, it continues to increase our competitive position. So I see nothing but good things for manufacturing in the US. We lived through a couple decades of China coming online and Mexico coming online, but we’re really starting to get through that, and now as things resettle and resource back to America, we need to be ready. The only way we can be ready is to automate.
Mary: Absolutely and to continue to learn about the technology. That kind of leads me up to one of my final points. People can learn more about Industry 4.0 and all this connected industry at Integr8. Can you tell your listeners a little bit about next year’s event, where it’s going to be and what you guys kind of have in store for us next year?
Tom: Absolutely, Mary. What was really cool was this year we had over 800 people in attendance at Integr8 and they were from around the world. It helped that the World Economic Forum is now a partner with us on this event. It really helps to drive home the importance, the relevance, the quality of Integr8 by having this partner. So next year’s Integr8 is November 6th, November 6th, 2019 at Cobo Center in Detroit. That’s our big convention center right in downtown Detroit.
As you know, Detroit’s been going through a resurgence. It’s a great place to come and that you can find information at Integr8Conference.com. Or you can also get at it just by going to AutoamtionAlley.com and clicking through to our Integr8 page.