AI Rising

Without high-tech tools, manufacturers risk falling behind

Posted on Apr 30, 2019 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

Imagine a machine at Company A directly ordering its input supplies from a machine at Company B or a plant manager looking at his or her phone and receiving up-to-the-minute data on production line output. It may sound like the factory of the future, but the technology is already here, and if manufacturers don’t adapt, they risk being left behind.

“Change is happening at breakneck speed. In the past, some companies would wait and see how technology developed and then adapt. Now, businesses can’t wait,” says Kelly Armstrong, vice president of economic development for the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce. “For our businesses to stay competitive on a global scale, they need to stay up-to-date on technology.”

Whether it’s artificial intelligence, the internet of things, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) tool, virtual reality, the industrial internet of things or another tech tool, businesses are not only finding ways to improve productivity, but also seeing technology as an answer to a tight labor market.

At Wisconsin Plastics Inc. in Green Bay, all the machines have sensors, which gather data in real time. That data is then fed through its ERP system, which integrates an organization’s business processes into a unified system that delivers all that information in easy-to-understand graphics to a screen — whether it’s on a phone, tablet or large TV screen.

“We really need AI capability to help us keep track of all that data (generated by the sensors) and analyze it,” says Carl Bartle, WPI’s plant safety manager. “The ability for us to track flow throughout the facility — which is what we see from our screens — is so important.”

Supply chAIn efficiencies

Large original equipment manufacturers are leading the manufacturing industry’s tech revolution. Those companies have found using AI, IoT and other technical tools helps their companies run more efficiently. Seeing their own success, these large manufacturers want their suppliers to embrace the same, Armstrong says.

“These companies know this technology is needed and want it throughout their supply chain so their machines can talk to your machines about where production is at, supply levels and more,” she says. “It’s more efficient if a machine that uses plastic beads in its work, for example, can ‘talk’ to the machines of its suppliers to tell them what’s needed and then place an order. It can all be done without human interaction, freeing up employees to do higher-skilled work.”

Joe Brittnacher, vice president of customer services for Lindquist Machine Corp. in Green Bay, agrees OEMs want their suppliers to adopt additional technology. “There’s no question. It improves their productivity and makes it easier for the OEMs if their suppliers are utilizing these tools,” he says.

WPI’s Bartle says some people believe the addition of technology will lead to job cuts, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He says WPI’s addition of a cobot (a robot that works alongside humans) within the last couple of years freed up the company to move those workers elsewhere.

“There is already such a shortage of workers,” he says. “The addition of technology allows us to redeploy employees into other roles.”

At WPI, for example, a robot — nicknamed Shirley — carefully and repeatedly places a small pin in a piece of plastic at a certain location without any deviations.

“With humans, it’s a job that requires a lot of dexterity, and you can get tired or space for a second and place it in the wrong spot. We can also use robots and cobots in roles to cut down on possible work injuries, such as having to keep leaning into a machine to pull out a mold,” Bartle says.

As for WPI’s cobot (it’s nicknamed Laverne), it works as part of a line that helps assemble toilet paper dispensers. It picks up a piece and prints a name on it before delivering it to an employee who finishes assembling the dispenser. From there, it goes to another employee who puts the final pieces together and prepares it for shipment.

Bartle says the cobot is covered with sensors and will slow down or stop if it senses that a human is too close. Shirley, however, is housed in a partial cage to prevent injuries since it moves so quickly. “We already had some automatic lines with basic robots that do simple skills. Laverne and Shirley handle more complex jobs,” he says, adding that WPI has plans to purchase more robots in the future.

Technology is changing manufacturing faster than ever before, says Craig Dickman, managing director of TitletownTech in Green Bay. Before his current role with the joint Microsoft and Green Bay Packers project, Dickman founded Breakthrough, a Green Bay company that uses technology to help reduce logistics costs for shippers and trucking companies. He left that role in early 2018 to launch a startup firm, StageThree Innovation.

“There’s been a lot of advances in technology when it comes to machine learning, whether it’s AI or VR. Businesses can’t take time and wait to adapt to these changes. You have to do it now,” he says. “Digital transformation is happening across all markets.”

VR is used at multiple businesses in the region for a variety of tasks, whether it’s Fabio Perini North America’s wearable glasses technology that allows skilled technicians to help customers troubleshoot projects using augmented reality, or construction companies that use glasses to allow project owners to “see” their building and make any necessary changes before the first wall goes up.

Dickman says there’s a wide spectrum out there when it comes to embracing technology. “There are some really creative thinkers in this market, but there are also others who are slow to adopt” technology changes, he says.

Understanding the market

Determining where manufacturers are when it comes to embracing technology is the goal of a survey the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance is in the process of conducting. The survey, which received grant funding from Microsoft, was sent to NEWMA members to assess what they are doing now and what their plans are when it comes to technology.

The St. Norbert College Strategic Research Institute is processing the results, and NEWMA will share them at next month’s full membership meeting.

Brittnacher, who was part of the task force that put the survey together, says conducting the survey was a necessity.

“This will tell us where people are at when it comes to Industry 4.0,” he says. “It’s also building awareness, and we hope it will help identify areas where tech colleges may need to provide more training and education.”

Michelle Schuler, Microsoft TechSpark Wisconsin manager, says it’s important to hear from manufacturers about what jobs they have trouble filling and what skills they are looking for in employees.

“When you consider the demand for skilled workers will only grow as industries embrace digital transformation, not only will manufacturers benefit from bridging the skills gap, but our communities will prosper from the good-paying jobs these companies bring to our state’s economy,” she says.

As an example of the coming changes to current jobs, Brittnacher says maintenance technicians in five years will analyze data on a machine to decide when tune-ups or repairs are needed rather than waiting for employees to speak up about potential issues.

“We make machines for other companies and hear what capabilities they need the machines to have. Utilizing IoT and AI are top requests,” he says. “We already know companies can’t find workers with the right skills, which is why it’s important to draw attention to the skills that workers will need in the years to come. If we don’t, the worker shortage will only get worse.”

As part of its TechSpark program in Wisconsin, Microsoft is getting involved with area alliances, such as NEWMA, and education stakeholders to help workers get the
skills they need to be successful, Schuler says.

“A core pillar of our TechSpark work in Wisconsin is expanding digital skills education and training to better prepare students and help upskill talent so they can pursue these job opportunities,” she says. “Assessing the needs of manufacturers is an important step to inform those efforts to bridge the gap so workers will have the skills needed to succeed with employers.”

Next steps

Business leaders may understand the need to add technology, but they can be unsure of where to start, Armstrong says.

“When you are adding AI or other tech tools, cybersecurity is a vital part of the situation. You want to protect your equipment so no one else can get in there,” she says. “Business owners need to address so many questions: Do they invest in technology first or cybersecurity tools? Or do they try to do both at the same time? And how will that affect the company’s culture?”

Dickman admits it can be challenging for manufacturers — and all business owners — to keep up with the latest technology.

“There is so much information out there and you have to make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself,” he says. “On the other hand, you can’t be oblivious to what’s happening.”

One piece of advice Dickman gives to business owners looking to keep up is to look at startups in the same field to see what they are doing.

“Look at that and think, ‘Is there anything there that I can use?’ You have to look at the market and where it’s going,” he says. “Technology is an important topic that needs to be discussed, and technology is definitely needed to help (the region) stay strong in manufacturing.”