Key Lessons from the Smart Manufacturing Summit: Building Tomorrow’s Manufacturing World Today

“It’s not our parents’ manufacturing anymore,” Governor Scott Walker told CEOs gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for Chief Executive’s Smart Manufacturing Summit on April 5th. The governor’s comment referred to the changing nature of the products being produced—and the jobs required to produce them—in his state over the past few decades. But it took on a broader meaning over the two-day gathering as business leader after business leader echoed the sentiment.

For example, Harley-Davidson CEO Matthew Levatich described the overhaul of a pre-World War II vehicle operations facility as a “seismic event” that completely transformed the plant. “It was a rabbit warren of waste and inefficiency—42 buildings on 232 acres where we used to have four assembly lines,” he noted. “We leveled 41 of them, sold the land and transformed those four lines into one flexible line capable of building any motorcycle.”

“If a ship carries a 3D printer and has the right data and materials, you can produce replacement parts right on board.”

Today, the plant’s continuous motion assembly line requires half as many full-time employees, with that number bolstered during peak demand periods. “This is a seasonal business; we need to produce as close to demand as we possibly can,” explained Levatich, who noted that the change demanded a delicate negotiation with workers. “We needed a labor agreement that allowed us to bring on 30% of casual workers who could support our surge manufacturing capability each spring.”

Other sessions during the event explored how everything from technologies like additive manufacturing and the Internet of Things to the evolution of lean manufacturing have redefined best practices in manufacturing—and reshaped businesses. For example, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize mature companies like 130-year-old Newport News Shipbuilding, noted CEO Matthew Mulherin. “If a ship carries a 3D printer and has the right data and materials, you can produce replacement parts right on board,” he said, “instead of taking up space and weight on the ship to carry the parts that you’re most likely to need or taking the time to go back to port.”

As more and more manufacturers adopt advanced technologies and processes, companies are increasingly struggling to find the talent to handle increasingly technical processes. Several CEOs participating in the Smart Manufacturing Summit described a need to take a proactive approach to working within their communities on cultivating a pool of skilled workers. For example, in addition to training its existing employees on the machines of the future, tool-maker Snap-On Tools partners with community colleges to build a curriculum around the talent pool in North Carolina. “We found a community college that was receptive to working with us to build the training for the workforce we need,” reported CEO Nick Pinchuk.

Correcting the misperceptions that tomorrow’s workers may have about a career in manufacturing can be a big component of these efforts, noted several CEOs, who pointed out that parents and students often view manufacturing jobs as a less than desirable option. The Barnes Group, a 159-year-old aerospace and industrial manufacturing company, seeks to address that by working with grade school and high school kids on programs to foster interest in manufacturing careers.

“If you go to the universities, you’re a day late and a dollar short, because by then, students have made up their minds about what career they plan to pursue,” said Patrick Dempsey, CEO. “So we have our people spend time in local elementary schools talking with the kids about manufacturing and doing a project they can relate to. We did a donut shop project with them where they split up into teams and produced donuts. They learn about production and they learn that manufacturing—whatever the product—contributes to society.”

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Jennifer Pellet
As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.

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