MAGNET: Innovation equals transformation and growth for area manufacturers

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In 1913, Henry Ford launched the world’s first mass-production assembly line—an earth-shaking innovation that eventually enabled Ford Motor Company to build a fully constructed automobile every 24 seconds.

The ripple effects of Ford’s brainstorming were felt worldwide—transforming the ways many industries shaped their manufacturing processes.

Ford’s vision still resonates, insofar as manufacturers must continue to innovate and improve to remain competitive, says Ethan Karp, president and CEO of Cleveland’s Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET).

MAGNET’s “Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio” is key in spreading this message, Karp says. The effort is backed by many Northeast Ohio corporations, universities, and economic development groups and recognizes a changing marketplace where innovation is synonymous with growth and transformation.

Robots are a good ROI because they can move thingsRobots are a good ROI because they can move things“Make It Better” also forecasts a high-tech future where talent, technology, and leadership are the benchmarks of success. On the technology side, this regional transformation encompasses robotics, connected computing, enhanced automation, and other applications surrounding Industry 4.0.

“This is the next wave of technology—it feels new because a lot of things had to come before it,” Karp says. “Think of manual machining compared to CNC. The low-hanging fruit was this equipment doing the automation for you. With collaborative robots, you needed [to know] CNC processing before making a process using a robot.”

Overseas, such revolutionary changes are happening at scale, thanks to equipment and systems that are cheaper to purchase and integrate than in years past.

For example, local businesses can buy and install a small collaborative robot can be bought and installed for about $30,000, with a return on investment (ROI) well worth the price tag, says MAGNET vice president of operations Michael O’Donnell.

“Robots are a good ROI because they can move things,” O’Donnell says. “You’re using smarts instead of brawn.”

Additionally, machine monitoring equipment is available for about $7,000—a far cry from the $250,000 shelled out by manufacturers of past decades.

Simply put, there is no excuse for even small enterprises not to invest in the newest machinery, says Karp.

“Smaller companies are not adopting fast enough, so their future competitiveness is at stake,” Karp says. “When you look at China, they are putting in these technologies. These are not leading-edge research projects, but things that can be on a shop floor tomorrow and start making a difference.”

An imperative to invest

A recent MAGNET survey found that about 5% to 10% of area producers are implementing Industry 4.0 technologies in a meaningful way.

Haltec vice president of IT Jeff KovacichHaltec vice president of IT Jeff KovacichOne example is tire valve industry leader Haltec Corporation, which makes gauges, lug nuts, and other aspects of rim assembly from its Salem headquarters. Named a “vendor of excellence” by construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, Haltec has doubled its sales in the last five years—thanks to a focus on profit-driven solutions and improved efficiencies, says Haltec vice president of IT Jeff Kovacich.

Automation is vital for the company, particularly the use of a valve assembly machine for parts previously produced entirely by hand. Though handcrafting is still central to operations, technology is key to production improvements, says Kovacich.

Haltec also uses digital enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to manage its business activities, while harnessing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to make real-time decisions via digitally interlinked devices.

“In the last 18 months, we’ve purchased new CNC machines as well as robotics to assemble tires,” says Kovacich. “The industry moves fast, and everyone wants to analyze data—when before it wasn’t so important. Leadership said we needed to invest.”

Building a community

MAGNET assists companies like Haltec along their automation paths, pointing executives to grant dollars for lean manufacturing projects that maximize productivity and minimize waste. The advocacy group also consults with businesses about integrating Industry 4.0 into their daily processes.

“Make It Better” forecasts a high-tech future that encompasses robotics, connected computing, enhanced automation, and other applications surrounding Industry 4.0“Make It Better” forecasts a high-tech future that encompasses robotics, connected computing, enhanced automation, and other applications surrounding Industry 4.0Although company officials are willing to at least consider a high-tech transition, many small-to-medium-sized firms have a tendency toward risk aversion, says MAGNET’s O’Donnell.

“Leaders are so involved in the business, it becomes a bandwidth issue for them,” he says. “They may not have time to tend to [new technology] or may not have the capital to even start.”

MAGNET won’t stand still even with some firms balking on technology, adds Karp. The organization partners with “lighthouses”—local enterprises willing to showcase their innovative knowledge to other regional manufacturers.  

Meanwhile, MAGNET and Cleveland economic development organization EDGE are launching a peer networking group to educate business leaders about the benefits of Industry 4.0 adoption.

What MAGNET officials know for sure is that a “good enough” mindset in modern manufacturing is nowhere near good enough.

“There are a mix of companies who are doing this work, and others who want to learn more,” says O’Donnell. “They are sharing their frustrations and best practices. The goal is to show people that this is real—here is a need for education while building a community.”

This is part three in a five-part series on MAGNET’s “Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio—a vision for the future of manufacturing in Northeast Ohio as a leader in high-tech smart manufacturing—and the four pillars to the blueprint: Innovation, Transformation, Talent, and Leadership.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.