Automation Alley’s Tom Kelly: Michigan’s Leadership in Industry 4.0 Through COVID-19

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Tom Kelly, president and CEO of Automation Alley, spoke with MICHauto’s Glenn Stevens Jr. and the Chamber’s Devon O’Reilly about what Michigan companies will need to do to utilize technologies like artificial intelligence to survive, compete, and thrive into the future.

Industry 4.0, also known as the fourth industrial revolution, is defined as the convergence of digital and physical technologies disrupting the manufacturing industry and being realized today in smart factories across the globe. It follows three revolutions, which transformed how people get around and do business: steam, electricity, and computers and robotics. This fourth industrial revolution is rooted in an understanding of artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, and how they change manufacturing operations and business models.

Michigan led the second industrial revolution, which developed and progressed with the third, and has the potential to be at the helm of Industry 4.0.

“We are going to become the true knowledge center we were kind of destined to be,” said Kelly. “We need to make sure Michigan owns that story globally. We need to dominate the fourth.”

Manufacturing was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a capital-intensive business, productivity requires work to be done on-site to deliver products and profit. While larger OEMs were able to adapt to new regulations and safety measures, smaller manufacturers struggled. Industry 4.0 poses many possible solutions to change the way manufacturing is done at all scales to allow for flexibility, agility, and resilience in the face of change.

Conversations are underway about developments like at-home manufacturing that leverages these automated technologies to keep production moving, even remotely. The perception among small businesses that these developments are exclusively accessible to or built for larger manufacturers needs to change as well.

“Those technologies are cheap,” said Kelly, “Anybody can afford those technologies. You’re limited by your imagination.”

Michigan’s challenge will be to break out of the mold of the comfort and success it’s found in Industry 2.0 and 3.0, and the COVID-19 crisis is forcing manufacturers to see what’s needed and what’s possible. Kelly touted work underway in the state to create a blockchain network that allows high security, micropayments, and connectivity of many remote printers to create a collective Tier 1 network. With additional logistics coordination, such a development could be instrumental in helping maintain manufacturing productivity in the face of crises like a global pandemic, further establishing the state’s leadership role in the sector.

“I love that we’re the auto capital of the world, but we need to be the manufacturing capital of the world,” said Kelly. “The wind is at our back for the first time in decades, and we need to take advantage of that because the rest of the world is not going to wait.”

Looking to the future, Kelly asserted the need for more comprehensive and advanced curriculum – a systems approach to engineering that goes beyond compartmentalized knowledge, and academic programs that evolve to keep up with business. Further, he called on leadership in middle and upper management to drive responsible risk-taking.

“Less risk averseness, more risk-taking. That’s going to decide our fate.”

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