If manufacturing’s golden years are still to come, connections will help industry get there


The common narrative is that the best years for manufacturing in America, particularly Wisconsin, are gone, lost to automation and globalization. Bill Berrien disagrees.

“I think our golden years are ahead of us,” said Berrien, chief executive officer of New Berlin-based Pindel Global Precision.

He argues that the continued rise of automation, technology and greater computer processing power will help U.S. manufacturing, which stands to benefit from a well-educated workforce, quality infrastructure, available capital resources and creative thinking.

For Wisconsin and the Midwest, a long history in manufacturing and the domain knowledge that comes with it “is going to be hugely valuable,” Berrien said.

“I think we’re pretty uniquely positioned,” he said.

He is one of five panelists speaking at the 2019 BizTimes Next Generation Manufacturing Summit. Jeffrey Dawes, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based Komatsu Mining Corp.; John Batten, president and CEO of Racine-based Twin Disc Inc.; Ken Bockhorst, president and CEO of Brown Deer-based Badger Meter Inc.; and Stacy Peterson, president and CEO of Big Bend-based Connoils LLC, will join Berrien on the panel. In addition to hearing from the region’s top executives, attendees will also participate in roundtables focused on specific issues facing manufacturers.

Event sponsors include 3M, BMO Harris Bank, David & Kuelthau, GSC, CG Schmidt, CiftonLarsonAllen, Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and Vistage. Registration is available at biztimes.com/mfg.

The theme of this year’s summit, taking place on Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the Wisconsin Manufacturing and Technology Show, is focused on “the connections shaping your company’s future.”

Speakers at the 2019 Next Generation Manufacturing Summit
Speakers at the 2019 Next Generation Manufacturing Summit

Connections are a key part of where Berrien gets his optimism for the future of manufacturing in Wisconsin. At a basic level, it is about knowing he can turn to other companies in the region to get work done outside his typical capabilities.

But connections are also shaping how work gets done inside and outside of companies.

For example, at Twin Disc, which makes transmissions, particularly for the oil and gas and marine industries, Batten is confronted with the rise of sensors and electronics in engines. The new technology generates plenty of data that can improve performance, but the tricky question is who owns the data.

“That’s an ongoing conversation,” Batten said.

Beyond navigating data complexities, advancing technology also requires more partnerships and cooperation to deliver a final product than ever before. Unlike the automotive industry where a large OEM can set a standard for suppliers to follow, the markets Twin Disc serves are fragmented.

“There’s no set standard on where our industry is going for boats, for frac rigs, for rock crushers and things like that. Every customer is going to do it different; every piece of the powertrain is going to do it differently to emphasize their product,” Batten said.

“You still have to pick the right customer, but then to provide them the solution, you have to pick partners to provide you with products for a system that you think is going to work for their application,” he added.

Badger Meter has been on a technology journey of its own in recent years as once very mechanical water meters have transitioned to cellular models that can communicate data every 15 minutes. The transition has required partnerships with companies like AT&T for cellular communication and with startups that bring new technology to the company.

“While the technology is evolving it can be really effective to do a partnership first,” Bockhorst said. “Then after you gain the knowledge and have a good understanding of where the markets are going, that’s when it makes more sense to acquire if you can.”

At Connoils, a manufacturer and distributor of bulk oil and bulk oil powder, Peterson is used to working with her customers, a group that ranges from giants like Unilever to startups that do not even have a name. Working across international markets and industries from food and beverage to health and beauty to sports nutrition requires constant strategic decision making.

“It’s kind of a decision-making process of working with the big guys and getting a huge order and then being able to supplement your time, if you have it available, for those smaller people,” she said.

On top of the complexities of multiple industries and countries, Connoils is also managing work in the rapidly evolving and growing CBD industry. Peterson said open and honest communication is key to her success.

“In the food industry and anything that’s regulated like we are, you have to make sure you don’t make any changes without notifying customers,” she said.

If something goes wrong with the machines Komatsu builds, chances are Dawes will hear about it.

“They’ll call me directly,” he said of his customers, noting the $30 million price tag for the company’s largest shovels.

But Dawes also has confidence in the quality of the machines because of its workforce, noting that was a major reason why Komatsu chose to build its planned $285 million headquarters in Milwaukee.

“The reason we (will build) it right here is because of the people, the quality of the engineers that we’ve got here and the quality of the operators we’ve got in the plant,” he said. “Somebody who can weld two pieces of 6-inch thick steel pipe is an absolute magician. That’s a skill set that’s very, very rare and that’s one of the reasons why we stayed here.”

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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