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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Industry 4.0 and the Race to Save Small Manufacturing in America

Dan Fullem operates equipment at Wire Products Company in Cleveland. The company is part of a research study led by Case Western Reserve University to help local manufacturers enter the Internet age.

Cleveland has the highest concentration of small manufacturers in Ohio.

Many of these companies have been making things the same way for generations.

In the first of a two-part Exploradio, we look at the way things have been made, and what companies need to change in order to survive.

We may be on the cusp of another industrial revolution, engineers call it Industry 4.0.

Industry 1.0 was the steam engine.   

Industry 2.0 was Henry Ford and the production line.  

The introduction of robots and automation marked Industry 3.0,  and making them smart and integrated, well, that’s Industry 4.0.

Exploradio: Industry 4.0 and the Need for a New Generation on the Factory Floor

They’re not quite there yet at Wire Products Company. It’s a medium sized manufacturer on Cleveland’s West Side, with around 110 employees, established 1951.

It's located on a street that could be almost anywhere in America. It’s called Industrial Parkway.

Dan Collins is VP of marketing at Wire Products Company in Cleveland, a medium-sized legacy manufacturer on the city's west side. He says his company is eager to learn more about Industry 4.0, but not quite ready to adopt advanced technology.

That’s where we meet Dan Collins, VP of marketing at Wire Products.

“We manufacture parts including springs, wire forms, and stampings for companies that use our parts for larger assemblies…”

A manufacturing legacy
Wire Products is one of dozens of companies taking part in a research project that hopes to identify the needs of Cleveland’s small manufacturers.

Collins takes us on a tour of the factory. 

“This half of the building is what we call our multi-slide department," says Collins, "mostly flat wire material. As you can see everything comes in spools, coils of steel…”

Workers feed the coiled steel into churning machines that bend, twist, and snip it into a bewildering number of parts, clips, and gadgets.

In another part of the factory we meet Dan Fullem.

He’s operating a diabolical looking, multi-arm machine. “It’s a high-speed CNC coiling machine,” he says.

They used to be able to make 40 springs per minute. Fullem says with a recently added laser guide they’ve boosted output of the machine three-fold.

“This laser controls the amount of wire in the spring," he says. "There’s a position right there that reads it, and if it’s good it sends it on its way.”

It’s among the most high tech items you’ll find in the factory. 

Back in his office Dan Collins says upgrades like the laser are based on the need to be competitive, "to make parts faster, quicker, more repeatable, less scrap, those types of things have forced our hand.”

Change is coming
But for most of Wire Products production, it’s not much different than it was in the 1950’s .

“I mean for gosh sakes we just put wireless Internet in this facility about two years ago,” says Collins.

Ken Loparo, left, and Robert Gao, right, are the principal investigators in a National Science Foundation study looking at ways to bring technology to legacy manufacturers and support the communities that surround them.

And that worries researcher Ken Loparo. He is the Nord Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Case Western Reserve University.

Loparo is part of a National Science Foundation grant looking into the technological challenges facing small manufacturers in Cleveland.

He hears manufacturers say, “I know my competitor, it’s Joe down the street three blocks..."

To which he says, "No you don’t. You have no clue. That was your competitor, but you don’t know who your competitor will be tomorrow.”

Loparo says American manufacturing is facing the same disruptions seen in industries like retail, newspapers, and the taxi business. “I don’t think Yellow Cab here in Cleveland ever saw Uber coming,” he says.

And for manufacturing, “the urgency is much more immediate than people think,” and Loparo says, Industry 4.0 is coming fast.

“In three years," he says, "it’s going to be too late.”

Industrial Internet of Things
Part of Industry 4.0 is the Industrial Internet of Things. Basically bringing those machines from the 1950’s into the Internet age by adding sensors and components that allow them to talk to each other.

Ed Weston is also part of the project. He’s director of growth programs at an industry support group called Manufacturing Works, helping neighborhood companies like Wire Products.

Ed Weston, left, and John Colm, right, of Manufacturing Works are part of the research study looking at west side manufacturers. They say implementing Industry 4.0, and facilitating workforce development are the two priorities for the companies they serve.

He works with a couple of hundred west side manufacturers.  “They do not have a technology strategy," says Weston, "they do not have an Internet of things technology strategy because they do not have a job called Chief Technology Officer."

"That’s just a collateral duty of the owner," says Weston, "who’s also the president who’s also heavily enmeshed in sales, etc.”

John Colm is founder and president of Manufacturing Works.  The organization’s been around for 30 years. He says another problem is that the realities of industry don’t mesh with the cycles of academia.

“There were a couple of companies that were interested in the use of these sensors," says Colm, "they were willing to work with Case,  and Case was willing to work with them, then the semester ended.”

Colm says his group is moving ahead anyway, scheduling workshops to teach small manufacturers about the Internet of  things.

Bridging the gap
Back at Case, project leader Robert Gao recognizes that research may not be able to bridge the gap quickly enough to meet the immediate needs of business.

“Fundamental research by definition is about creating new knowledge," says Gao, "that’s what we do…”

It’s a conundrum. 

“I mean if you stick to this definition, you will never be able to solve those social-economical problems.”

But he says small manufacturers on Cleveland’s west side need affordable solutions now, "because these companies are facing increasing competition.”

The answer to the problem, may be just blocks away at John Marshall High School. There they’re training the next generation of IT professionals to solve the challenges of Industry 4.0.

We’ll look at that in next week’s Exploradio.

Jeff is your average chemist turned radio host and reporter. He currently hosts middays on WKSU and has reported extensively on science, politics, business, and the environment.