Safety in numbers

Wisconsin IoT Council supports companies as they explore building connected products

Posted on Oct 29, 2019 :: Feature
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

Venturing into a new frontier in manufacturing can prove intimidating for many reasons, but a newly formed organization aims to provide businesses with the knowledge and support they need to begin building smart and connected products.

The Wisconsin Internet of Things Council launched this past summer with the goal of promoting the state and the Midwest as a hub for internet of things (IoT) technologies. The membership-driven organization provides a forum for networking, relationship building and information sharing.

Jeremy Udovich serves as board chair for the organization as well as regional sales director of IoT and manufacturing for Madison-based HiQo Solutions. A Sheboygan native, he started his career as a professional golfer before taking on his role with HiQo four years ago and moving back to his home city a year ago.

Over the past couple of years, Udovich says he’s become increasingly interested in IoT and the way it allows people to interact with spaces and how spaces can interact on their own to make businesses and people’s lives easier, smarter and better. Eager to learn more, he began attending manufacturing conferences across the state only to discover few people were talking about the topic, a fact he found alarming.

“If we don’t do something about this, if our manufacturers who hire most of our employees here in the state of Wisconsin don’t start diving into this, we are not going to be the industrial Rust Belt anymore,” he says.

To begin laying out the vision for an organization in Wisconsin, Udovich turned to the Chicago-based Midwest IoT Council, which had been operating since 2005 and had a framework in place. He wanted to bring something similar to his home state.

The Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp. provided seed funding for the council, and it’s operating under the umbrella of the SCEDC and Sheboygan’s FreshTech Innovation District. Dane Checolinski, director of the SCEDC, says Sheboygan, with its large concentration of manufacturers, is an ideal host city for the organization.

“A lot of companies are looking in that direction (of IoT), and the big companies have the resources to go in and do it, but your 50- to 300-person manufacturers just simply don’t have the resources. What we want to do is make that expertise and those conversations accessible to manufacturers,” he says.

Ron Rumack, a Wisconsin native who spent most of his career on the coasts as a commercial and investment banker and later attained a Master of Business Administration degree with an information technology emphasis, is the council’s first employee. In his part-time role, he serves as coordinator for the organization.

The council held its first event, “Challenges and Opportunities: Internet of Things in Wisconsin and the Midwest,” in September at Sheboygan’s Blue Harbor Resort & Conference Center. Around 70 attended, including business and engineering leaders representing 23 manufacturing companies.

The inaugural event included keynote presentations from Shane Moll, president of power tools at Milwaukee Tool, and Don DeLoach, an author, IoT thought leader and founder of Rocket Wagon Venture Studios.

In his talk, Moll shared his company’s journey of adding IoT-enabled products and embracing innovation. In the past, Milwaukee Tool had come late into industry trends such as offering cordless power tools. Today, however, it takes a forward-thinking approach and offers products aimed at solving users’ problems. Its smart tools provide a range of solutions, from helping apprentices learn to reducing tool loss and theft.

“I would be very uncomfortable if we didn’t make the investment in the connected space when we did, and we would be very, very far behind,” he said at the presentation.

That ability to share and learn from others’ experiences and mistakes is powerful, and the council will provide a platform to do just that, Udovich says. After the first event, he says people said they loved the presentations but gained so much from the networking. As companies explore IoT, it helps to know others are in the same position and no one has it all figured out, he says.

Udovich says small- to medium-sized manufacturers will be a key demographic for the organization, as they’re the ones that need the most help. Larger companies can get involved to help spread the message about IoT and share their experiences with others.

It’s a “rising tide raises all ships” situation, Udovich says. If Wisconsin can establish itself as a leader in manufacturing smart, connected products, it will benefit all players.

While the council is based in Sheboygan, it will serve all of Wisconsin and hold events statewide. Right now, the organization is still building awareness and educating companies and other institutions about what it offers, but its ultimate vision is to deliver “Silicon Valley-level” education and knowledge to people in their own backyard, Udovich says.

As the organization grows in scope and reach, Udovich says it can become an advocate on behalf of its membership. In addition, establishing the state as an IoT leader will help with issues of talent attraction and retention. The brightest STEM workers want to know they’ll find like-minded peers in the places they choose to live and work, and groups such as the council can foster that, he says.

Udovich says he’d like to see the council continue to add new members, and if it could help a few hundred companies commit to building next-generation products, that would be a big success.

“I want everybody to know that if you think at all that you’re building a product that could be digitally enabled, put your hand up. Get in touch with the council. You don’t have to do this alone. We can all do this together,” he says.

How to get involved

The Wisconsin IoT Council is a membership-based organization. Annual membership fees range in price from $150 for academic institutions to $350 for startups to $2,500 for large manufacturers. For more information
on the council and how to join, visit
freshtechinnovation.com/wisconsiniot.