American manufacturing is at a crossroads:
Not only in terms of changing technology and increased competition, but whether workers are ready for the next industrial revolution.
In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St. Clair looks at how one Cleveland community is adapting to Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 is the catch word for what’s next in manufacturing, the oncoming industrial Internet of things and smart technology.
But who’s going to run these smart machines in America’s factories?
It’s a question researchers are asking in one community on Cleveland’s west side.
West Park is home to around 200 small to medium-sized manufacturers, and around one-third of the people who work in those plants also live in the neighborhood.
That means their economic futures are intertwined.
Bryan Gillooly is head of the Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation, which supports the needs of residents in the West Park neighborhood.
Gillooly is also part of a federally funded research project that includes researchers at Case Western Reserve University and local manufacturers.
As part of the research, Gillooly held focus groups to find out how residents feel about technology’s impact on their lives, and livelihoods.
He says, compared to the job losses from automation, people are more hopeful about Industry 4.0’s impact. “We are used to the idea of technology replacing us, and now there’s an idea of technology promising us a better future,” says Gillooly.
And hope for the neighborhood’s manufacturing future can also be found on West 140th Street, inside John Marshall High School.
Computer skills for life and work
Krystle Rivera is community and business coordinator at John Marshall's school of IT.
“We’re the only school in the state of Ohio that has a computer science curriculum,” says Rivera.
She takes me to Arley Trujillo’s 9th grade algebra class, where you're hard pressed to find any notebooks, pencils, paper, or chalk.
Trujillo’s students learn algebra by creating a video game on a Mac computer.
“They’ll design it," says Trujillo. "They’ll choose how many characters they have, they’ll code it using algebra concepts, and next thing you know," he says, "they’ll have a working video game that they made.
He says it makes algebra more interesting by putting it to use everyday.
The computer skills these kids are learning may be just what Cleveland manufacturers need to survive, according to researcher Ken Loparo.
New skills needed in Industry 4.0
Loparo teaches electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve University, and is part of the Industry 4.0 research project.
He says Cleveland manufacturers are facing a shake-up on the factory floor as a generation of skilled workers retire.
“You’re going to go from somebody that can help you manage that equipment because they’ve got their thumb on the pulse and know what’s happening," says Loparo, "to very green and inexperienced people who don’t have any understanding of how temperamental those machines actually are.”
And that's why Industry 4.0's upgrades are needed. Smart machines can tell inexperienced workers when there's a problem.
John Colm is head of Manufacturing Works, an industry advocacy group leading the manufacturing side of the research project. He’s hoping tech savvy graduates can be lured to factory jobs.
Colm wonders whether, "high school students coming out of John Marshall could potentially be that next wave of talent?”
Colm’s looking for practical ways to bridge Industry 4.0’s impending talent gap, “where a team of students could basically be the data analytics team for several companies.”
Firms like Wire Products Company.
Adapting to the Internet age
Wire Products, founded in 1951, makes metal springs, clamps, and other custom parts for the automotive, aerospace, and other industries.
The company has some extremely experienced employees, like 80 year-old Roger Wenmoth, who joined the company in 1957. He's been working on the same shop floor for more than 61 years.
I ask whether he's considering retirement.
“I would go crazy if I was at home," says Wenmoth, "I’d rather go crazy here!”
He shows no signs of slowing down as bent metal parts continue churning out of the machines he's operating.
Wire Products Vice President of marketing Dan Collins says Wenmoth is part of the family, but he recognizes the need to bring in a new generation of workers with new skills.
“The way you’re going to survive is bringing in that skilled youth set," says Collins, "and they’re going to be so much more familiar with the Internet of things than the people who are retiring or are on the back nine of their career.”
Case Western economics professor Susan Helper is involved in the Industry 4.0 research.
She says the challenges facing Wire Products are not unique.
Compared to the rest of the world, she says, small American manufacturers have lagged in both innovation and attracting a new workforce.
“What’s happened in the US is that we’ve gotten stuck in the middle," says Helper.
"We don’t have wages as low as China or Mexico, but we don’t have technology as good as Germany and Japan.”
And she says a transition needs to happen soon.
American prosperity is in the balance.