MI Smart Factory Tours expose talent to high-tech advanced manufacturing

This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
It was such a good idea that they wondered why they hadn’t thought of it before.

Of course, with all that Automation Alley does to promote Michigan as a hub for advanced manufacturing and technology--or Industry 4.0, as they refer to it — the organization’s new factory tours for college students could be seen as just another drop in the bucket of all that they do.

But MI Smart Factory Tours could turn out to be a pretty significant component of Automation Alley’s mission: Cementing Michigan’s position as a global leader in advanced manufacturing and technologies.

“As you think about what’s happening not just in manufacturing but in all industries, with technologies like 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things Michigan is one of the few places in the world where all of these technologies come together and work with each other,” says Tom Kelly, Automation Alley executive director and CEO.

“We are the perfect state to be doing this.”

Automation Alley launched a pilot run of its MI Smart Factory Tours in October 2018. Students from Ohio University Russ College of Engineering and Technology visited Fori Automation in Shelby Township, Parker Hannifin and Hirotec in Auburn Hills, and FANUC in Rochester Hills.

The intent is to demonstrate both the opportunities available in advanced manufacturing, and especially in Michigan, but also the appeal. A job in advanced manufacturing doesn’t a mean a job on the assembly line. Many of the same technologies that draw young workers to places like Silicon Valley exist right here in southeast Michigan.

“If you want to be involved in high tech, you don’t just have to be a software programmer. You can also get involved in advanced manufacturing,” Kelly says. “Software is getting more and more involved in the physical world, like with autonomous vehicles.”

The tours will expose students to additional career opportunities while helping them establish relationships with potential future employers. And for the employers themselves, it provides an inside track in reaching and recruiting young talent before they leave for far away technology hubs.Students learned about advanced robotics during MI Smart Factory Tours. Photo by Automation Alley.

Or, as Kelly puts it, “Most students don’t see manufacturing as a sexy place to be when it really is.”

The pilot run of MI Smart Factory Tours resulted in both ecstatic students and businesses, he says. Two initial tours are scheduled for this year with the possibility of adding two more. Interest is already high, says Kelly, and Automation Alley plans to add more and more tours, year after year.

This spring, electro-mechanical students from MIAT College of Technology will tour four companies. And in the fall, a cohort of lean management grad students from Oakland University will tour four more. Automation Alley wasn’t yet ready to divulge which businesses would be hosting the tours.

Kelly believes that programs like this work to change the perception of Michigan as a global leader in technology, both at home and abroad, and that Michigan is not a flyover state but a destination. Just look at Rivian, an electric vehicle startup that recently chose Plymouth, Michigan as its global headquarters due to the region’s advanced manufacturing infrastructure.

What’s more, Rivian recently announced a $700 million investment from Amazon.

It’s news like this, and tours like Automation Alley’s, that will help draw the next generation of talent to Michigan.

“As manufacturing goes, there is massive disruption coming from all sides,” Kelly says. “We have to be the state that understands how technology will change manufacturing. We have to be at the forefront.”

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