Business in Waukesha County: Talent and data are two major pieces of Waukesha County’s future

The transformation of industries by digital technologies has defined the last few decades, disrupting business models and increasing productivity. While those changes will continue, experts say advancements in material sciences and genomics, and new ways of computing, will define the coming decades.

“What’s coming next is going to be far, far bigger than digital,” said renowned business author Greg Satell.

Satell was the keynote speaker at Waukesha County 2035, a new BizTimes Media event held April 26 at The Ingleside Hotel in Waukesha. He said businesses need to do double duty, continuing to move quickly to implement the advancements of digital technology while also developing an understanding of what advancements will shape their industry in the future.

“If you’re a manufacturer and you have no idea what’s going on in material science, you might well wake up one day and find that you’re completely out of the game,” Satell said. “That’s not about moving fast, that’s about getting in early, learning, discovering and preparing.”

New technologies and innovations come with plenty of excitement, but with an aging workforce and increased competition for talent, the same things that limit them today will challenge many businesses.

“We’re going to be limited by talent,” said Jay Hill Jr., chief technology officer and chief operating officer for imaging at GE Healthcare, which has a significant presence in Waukesha County. “We’ve got to get our act together as individual companies, educational systems, as an industry.”

Hill and W. Kent Lorenz, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Waukesha-based Acieta LLC, joined Satell as presenters at the Waukesha County 2035 event.

For Hill and GE Healthcare, the next 15-plus years hold plenty of promise. The vast majority of the world’s population – around 5 billion people – does not have good access to quality medical imaging.

“There’s a constraint of supply in most of the world that we couldn’t recognize here,” Hill said.

He added that beyond expanding access, there is opportunity in reducing the error rates in medical imaging, while also working to reduce costs. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires a precision medicine approach that combines imaging, diagnostics and therapies with data and insights from devices.

“More and more we’re going to need to understand deep learning techniques, data science,” Hill said. “These become inextricable to our future and to the industry’s future.”

The possibilities are exciting but realizing them requires finding the best talent in what is now a global competition, Hill said. Winning that competition locally starts with having a presence in high school STEM programs and continues through increased interaction at the state’s universities.

But Hill said there are not enough students graduating from the local universities in fields like deep learning and data analytics, even though the schools are setting up quality programs in those areas.

“They’re really working hard to get good graduates out there, but it’s a field that’s exploding so fast,” he said.

Innovation hot spots like Boston or Silicon Valley are also a draw for top talent. Hill said that while Wisconsin “for good reason” emphasizes its quality of life benefits like affordability or shorter commutes, those ideas are often “abstract problems” for new graduates.

“In many cases they want to know, ‘Hey, if this company doesn’t work out, is there another company?’” Hill said. “It’s kind of the intent of the economy (in Silicon Valley) that the churn is part of what makes it interesting.”

“We have the ability for people to come to this area and get into an industry like this and grow a career and they have options,” he added. “We think that’s a message that’s been under served.”

Hill said GE Healthcare has found success when it can get potential employees excited about the work it’s doing. Medical imaging, after all, is about finding, diagnosing and treating injuries, disease and illness, so there is a pretty clear connection to helping people live healthier lives.

“It’s always easier when you have a mission and the mission here is really clear,” Hill said. “The challenge is letting everybody know you’re here with the mission.”

Not every manufacturer is GE Healthcare, with the size and scale to lead an industry in innovation. Waukesha County is full of small- to medium-sized manufacturers who make up the supply chains of industry giants like GE.

Lorenz said those smaller companies also stand to benefit from advances in AI, 5G connectivity and greater adoption of robotics. They’re also at risk of being left behind if they do not take steps to embrace new technologies. Some projections suggest 30% to 40% of manufacturers will go out of business by 2035 because of disruptive technologies, he said.

Waukesha County has around 980 manufacturers, suggesting close to 300 to 400 factories could shut their doors if the projections hold true.

Lorenz said many smaller manufacturers are hesitant to embrace newer technologies because they do not see an immediate return on investment, feel it is too expensive or are not sure which approach to take.

“Honestly, those are all excuses,” Lorenz said. “If you don’t get on the train now, recognizing you may have to change train cars in the journey, you’re going to get left behind because your customers are going to demand this and they won’t have to look far to find somebody who is already doing it.

He pointed to Pindel Global Precision Inc., a New Berlin-based manufacturer of precision machined components. The company currently pays around $100 per month per machine to have data from all of its CNC machines uploaded to the cloud. Bill Berrien, the company’s CEO, is able to access from anywhere information on how the machines are performing.

While the process for analyzing the data is primarily manual now, as AI advances it will enable even more detailed evaluation and better insights.

On the factory floor, the AI technology could be applied to detect increased vibrations or temperature changes in a machine’s gear box, allowing a company to schedule maintenance instead of fixing it in an emergency when the part fails.

AI could also be applied to create more efficient movements for CNC machines, cutting cycle times by as much as 30% in some cases, Lorenz said.

“Basically anything moving in your factory is going to get a superhuman look at how efficient it’s running,” he said.

Beyond AI, Lorenz said robotic adoption would continue to increase as demographic trends continue to limit the number of available workers. The U.S. currently has an estimated 200 industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers, according to the latest International Federation of Robotics data. Japan has 308, Germany has 322 and Korea has 710.

“We are behind the curve in robotic adoption in the United States and in the next 15 years we’re going to have to figure that out in order to be competitive, or we’re going to be left behind by countries like China, Korea, Germany and Japan,” Lorenz said.

He added that while the potential attrition of manufacturers is a negative when it comes to job loss, there is reason for optimism.

“I’m pretty bullish about the new industries and businesses that crop up that will do this type of work, from software companies to implementation companies. I think there’s a whole other wave out there,” he said. “So the 30% to 40% attrition, while that’s a bad thing, there will be at least that created in new jobs around automation, around AI, around 5G and connectivity.”

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.