Virtual connection

Manufacturing First joins people through presentations, AI-powered networking

Posted on Nov 13, 2020 :: Feature
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

The 10th annual Manufacturing First Expo & Conference stood out from its previous iterations in many ways, but perhaps the biggest change was taking it from an in-person event to an all-virtual one due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had a lot of great content this year,” says NEW Manufacturing Alliance Executive Director Ann Franz. “With the (Brella) platform we used, people can also go back and rewatch a presentation if they missed something or want to hear it again — I know I have.”

Held over three days, the event used the Brella platform, and each day included a keynote and a slate of virtual presentations on topics including technology, supply chain, marketing and legal issues. 

Using AI, Brella helped match people with similar interests, allowing attendees to set up one-on-one meetings — something Franz says many people, herself included, appreciated.

“Networking is a key reason people attend Manufacturing First and we knew that to make the virtual event a success that we needed a platform that allowed for that one-on-one networking, and Brella exceeded all of our expectations,” she says.

The event drew 700-plus attendees, and many came away impressed with how easy it was to network virtually and with the number and variety of presentations, Franz says.

Kevin Gosselin, vice president of business development for Fox Valley Metal Tech in Ashwaubenon, said he was pleasantly surprised with how the virtual event came together. “I’m sure most people would agree that in-person provides for better networking, but there were certainly parts of the Brella experience that worked very well,” he said.

“Great job pivoting Manufacturing First to a virtual platform,” said Chris Lipski, managing director of Vantage Financial in Grafton. “I was able to get a ton of good one-on-one calls and just got back from touring Engineering Specialists as a result of one of those calls. Way to spin gold out of straw!”

Franz says the Manufacturing First committee indeed spun gold out of straw. The group selected the event’s main speakers and created a plan in February. “We basically planned the event twice. We thought it was fairly set, but then March came and we waited, thinking things would get better. As the summer moved on, we knew we needed to go into a whole new direction,” she says.

Future focused

Futurist and author Daniel Burrus launched Manufacturing First with his keynote presentation on strategies leaders can use to identify and capitalize on new opportunities during disruptions like COVID-19. While he acknowledged the upheaval the pandemic has caused, Burrus said decisions businesses make now will determine their strength once the pandemic and its accompanying economic slowdown end.

Burrus related the situation to his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. “It doesn’t have a reverse. It can’t go back; it can only go forward,” he said. “That’s the way you need to be with your business — look forward, don’t look back at the past.”

Tim and Gretchen Gilbertson of Séura, a Green Bay manufacturer of indoor and outdoor TV and mirror solutions, kicked off the second day by sharing how they started the business from their garage and developed it into an international brand. Tim Gilbertson said that when presented with opportunities, the couple always took them — even agreeing to attend a trade show with less than a week’s notice. “When other businesses said no, we said yes,” he said.

The third day’s main presentation featured a panel of four regional manufacturers discussing the importance of culture during difficult times. Turn to page 16 to read about the roundtable.

Each of the three days of the conference included a series of virtual presentations covering a range of topics. Here’s a look at information shared during some of the presentations:

Embracing technology: W. Kent Lorenz, a board member of First Business Financial Services and former chairman and CEO of Acieta, led a presentation on Internet of Things trends. In the face of a shrinking workforce, it’s imperative for manufacturers to start embracing technology solutions now, he said.

Lorenz advised creating a five-year strategic plan that includes: having all work centers reporting real-time data for artificial intelligence data, providing real-time customer and supplier dashboards, adding augmented reality tools, and targeting a 40 percent increase in productivity per employee versus today using automation and technology by 2030.

“If you are a leading manufacturer, if you are progressive, these are the types of increases in productivity that you’d be planning for,” he said.

Strategic planning: Dean Stewart, executive director of the Center for Exceptional Leadership at St. Norbert College, discussed strategic visioning and how to execute it. “As your business puts its strategy together about where you want to be in one year or two years, that strategy should be a combination of creativity and rigor,” he said. “The strategy tells you where you and your business are going.”

Technology for the win: Wipfli senior consultant Jake Rohrer and solutions manager Anirudh Nadkarni encouraged manufacturers to transition from traditional ways of thinking to new ways. Technology can reduce risks, fill the labor void and create efficiencies.

Furthermore, robots can take over dangerous or boring tasks and allow human workers to focus on more specialized tasks, Rohrer said. “Technology can really eliminate some of those mundane tasks and (you can) move those people to those value-added roles,” he said.

Culture creation: Presenters from Fox Valley Technical College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College discussed creating a workplace culture of dignity and respect. They shared about unconscious bias and how it informs about behaviors and decision-making.

“The biggest thing for us is to recognize when (bias) is happening,” said Mohammed Bey, NWTC’s chief officer for diversity, equity and inclusion.

COVID-19 and employment law: Four attorneys from Ruder Ware discussed top legal issues facing manufacturers. The pandemic has brought much confusion to employers. Employment attorney Sara Ackermann said it’s not always clear what kind of exposure justifies quarantine, and fear alone is not grounds for self-quarantine. When employees say they’re in quarantine, they expect they can take unpaid leave, work from home or use their PTO, she said.

“And if you hear that an employee in quarantine is doing things that someone in quarantine shouldn’t be doing — going out for dinner or drinks — you can investigate, and if it turns out they violated the quarantine, you can discipline them,” Ackermann said, adding that consistency and treating all employees the same are key.

Thoughtful training: Lakeshore Technical College and Moraine Park Technical College teamed up on a presentation about training and coaching. Bill Persinger of LTC said employees and potential employees can take numerous tests to gauge how they might do in a particular job. “This goes beyond a skills test, but also looking more closely to see if someone has the right personality and innate ability to be trained for a job,” he said.

Once workers are on the job, coaching is necessary, said MPTC’s Matt Goff. “Assessments and coaching go hand-in-hand. Coaching is a continual process, and as you continue to develop your employee, this can lead to better retention rates.”

On the road to recovery? WMEP Manufacturing Solutions shared the results of its fourth Economic Crisis/COVID-19 Wisconsin Manufacturer Pulse Survey. Respondents for the survey, completed in October, shared modest optimism, though many companies still worry about future COVID-19 outbreaks, employee health and safety, and economic disruptions.

Supply chain fixes: Acuity Insurance presenters Mike Schlagenhaufer, manufacturing consultant, and Aaron Stamm, retail consultant, shared supply chain advice. It’s important for manufacturers to look at the situation they’re facing now and plan what they can do to prepare for future disruptions, they said.

“This isn’t an isolated situation. Any kind of natural disaster could have a similar impact to what we see today,” Stamm said.

Future of IoT: Manufacturing First ended with a special presentation by Benson Chan, senior partner at Strategy of Things, and Gordon Feller, former director at Cisco Systems HQ, on “Accelerating the Internet of Things in the U.S.” Chan and Feller are two members of a team of experts who received a grant from the U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct an IoT research project. They shared the study’s results and practical implications that could stem from the project.

Chan shared how IoT is growing across the country and what manufacturers need to know. “IoT can fill in a lot of gaps for manufacturers,” he said. “IoT can help with predictive maintenance, which optimizes machine uptime. The things we do today, we can do better when utilizing IoT.”