Whether it is deciding where to make investments around the world, expanding a plant to produce new products, adjusting to changing technology or finding the staff needed to maintain customer relationships, manufacturers are facing decisions today that will determine their success tomorrow.
Those challenges – and many more – are among those faced by the panelists at the 2017 Next Generation Manufacturing Summit. Mike Shiels (1), dean of the School of Applied Technologies at Waukesha County Technical College, will lead a discussion featuring David Werner (2), manufacturing and supply chain director for 3M’s Industrial Adhesives and Tapes Division; John Mellowes (3), chief executive officer of Charter Manufacturing Co. Inc.; Jim Hawkins (4), CEO of Kenall Manufacturing; and Jim Leef (5), president of ITU AbsorbTech.
The panel discussion kicks off the summit, to be held from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4, as part of the Wisconsin Manufacturing & Technology Show at State Fair Park in West Allis. BizTimes Media and Milwaukee 7 are again joining forces to present the event.
Werner said 3M has seen growth over the past six to nine months that’s been improving and ahead of internal expectations.
“I think we’re seeing an inflection point,” he said, adding he’s expecting to need a 50 percent increase is his capital budget for next year to make investments that can pay off two years down the line.
Deciding where to invest, especially with operations all around the world, is a complicated process. Werner said 3M looks to its customers to see where they are investing, where the company already does business, and at the availability of labor, raw materials and other components.
At the same time, 3M is also working to implement advanced manufacturing technologies that range from automation and robotics to augmented intelligence and the Internet of Things.
“We’re trying to make our value streams faster and more efficient,” Werner said. “We’d like to take some of these smaller factories and roll them into larger factories.”
Charter Manufacturing’s Mellowes is in the midst of making his company’s Cleveland facilities even larger with a $150 million investment, adding steel bar production to its traditional steel coil business and doubling the accessible market.
“It’s an idea that we’ve had for literally 10-plus years. We’ve attacked it from a couple different ways from a planning standpoint,” Mellowes said.
The company’s original assumption was that growth would be strong enough to fully utilize the Cleveland facility’s capacity, but slower growth meant it made sense to invest to open up new markets.
Beyond the big investments, Charter also spends a lot of time making ongoing investments on its culture, employee engagement and continuous improvement. Charter is also exploring ways to incorporate new technologies in its production, while also paying attention to how its customers are adapting their businesses. In the automotive industry, for example, regulatory pressure to improve fuel mileage and the shift toward electric vehicles will impact Charter’s business.
Kenall’s Hawkins knows all too well what it means for new technology to disrupt the industry. The shift to LEDs has created a paradigm shift in which nearly all lighting fixtures are being replaced. It has driven a land grab by companies making rapid improvements and innovations.
Foreign competitors have also been improving their quality and consistency, so Kenall has to emphasize its customer relationships while also moving from providing products to systems. Creating networked lighting systems offers new ways to gather data and save customers money. It is also harder for foreign competitors to replicate.
But adding those capabilities requires bringing on new disciplines Kenall hasn’t had in the past and an evaluation of which positions are relevant as technology continues to evolve.
“You have to have the talent in your organization to understand these new technologies,” Hawkins said.
ITU AbsorbTech doesn’t face the same technological pressures Kenall does, but as a service provider for manufacturers, solving customer problems and helping them save money is a big part of the business.
With roughly half of the company’s 400 employees interacting with customers on a regular basis, it is important for ITU AbsorbTech to find employees who like the idea of building a relationship with someone.
“We know that we have to be really active and good at finding people who fit the culture of the company,” Leef said.
But the best way to avoid having to fill positions is to keep people as part of the staff in the first place. Leef said the company talks with employees a lot about their potential career path and then invests to help them get there.
“We talk a lot about team play,” he added. “If you like the people that you work with, you know who they are and there are a lot of positive interactions, it makes it harder for someone to decide they want to go someplace else.”