MEDC ‘Recommits’ to Michigan Manufacturers: $275K grant slated for regional training, education

A $275,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is a step toward helping manufacturers in the region move forward into automation and other aspects of what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.

But it’s only a first step of what promises to be a years-long process, said Matt McCauley, CEO at Networks Northwest. The organization facilitates and manages various programs and services for the 10-county area of northwestern lower Michigan.

“Michigan has long been known as a manufacturing leader in the United States and globally,” said McCauley. He said the grant will help numerous industries and is proof the MEDC recognizes the need to support manufacturing efforts statewide. “The MEDC is recommitted to manufacturing in Michigan.”

The grant to the Northwest Industry 4.0 Consortium was one of 10 funded by the MEDC to regional projects across the state. Fifty-five percent of the funding will go to Northwestern Michigan College’s 4.0 Learning Lab; 25% to building awareness in the manufacturing sector; and the remaining 20% to Regional Economic Development Industry 4.0 Strategy and Marketing.

Northwestern Michigan College’s 4.0 Learning Lab.

After the college’s learning lab is outfitted with the latest innovations, it will host industry leaders and workers from around the region.

“It’s an opportunity to take it to the next level,” said Jason Slade, the director of Technical Academic Area at NMC. “It will enable area manufacturers to see exactly what the technologies can do for them. We’ll invite (manufacturers) in to experiment and grow.”

NMC is working to determine the equipment required to create a realistic and useable training station within the grant budget, such as traditional and collaborative robots, smart sensors, conveyor operations and other items to replicate the first steps a business may face in its efforts.

“We’ll add these Industry 4.0 pieces,” said Slade, referring to the ongoing transformation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices combined with the latest smart technology.

NMC will also offer a variety of credit, non-credit and industry certification options – what Slade calls microcredentials – for workers, both those entering the manufacturing workforce and those seeking more advanced skills. Microcredentials could be earned in training sessions lasting one or two days, making it quicker, easier and more affordable for both companies and individuals. Slade said he expects companies to reserve space for utilizing and learning about equipment and technology specific to their needs.

The Northwest I4 Consortium includes several organizations serving manufacturing throughout the area. In addition to Networks Northwest and NMC, it includes the Alliance for Economic Success, Cadillac Area Manufacturing Association, Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council, Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, Manistee Manufacturing Association, Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, Northwest Industrial Association, Northwest Michigan Works! and Traverse Connect.

Rich Wolin is the vice president of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center and director of northern lower operations. The organization provides small and medium-sized manufacturers throughout the state with training, consulting services, website and digital assistance, and market diversification tactics.

Wolin says he believes the grant and the subsequent training options it will provide will be of great benefit to area manufacturers.

“The purpose of the grant is to drive innovation in manufacturing. We have 50 to 100 employers here who have to stay competitive,” said Wolin. “Otherwise they’ll get squeezed out.”

He said manufacturing plays a vital role throughout the state and the region.

“A healthy economy has many facets,” he said.

While this region is better known for agriculture or tourism, industry plays a large role in its economy.

“Just like an investment portfolio, you want diversity. There’s a significant amount of manufacturing under the radar. It helps stabilize and keep it (the local economy) healthy,” he said.

While acknowledging the fact there aren’t large-scale facilities in this region such as auto manufacturers or defense companies, Wolin said those manufacturers which are located here are no less important to the economy.

“Many of these companies supply bigger companies, or make unique things that go all over the world. The competition is always evolving and the pace of change is increasing,” he said.

Plus there’s the fact that industrial jobs often pay well, perhaps better than positions in the service industry.

“Manufacturing jobs … can pay in the higher wage range and offer better benefits,” he said.

Wolin said the fact that global supply chains were interrupted during the pandemic pointed to how important a healthy manufacturing base is. Providing access to and instruction in current technology will keep local and regional manufacturers viable and enable related industries to continue without relying on overseas partners.

Slade said the goal is not to supplant the human workforce, but to enable the workers to learn new skills, making them more valuable. Workers won’t be replaced by robots, but will learn how to program them.

The rapid pace of technological change means that those who don’t learn to adapt – both companies and individuals – will likely get left behind.

“We want to upscale workers and bring in more,” said Slade. “We want to expand the lab and show it off. This is just the start.”