An enthusiastic capacity crowd of nearly 500 people from throughout the state recently gathered for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s 20th annual Manufacturing Matters! conference in Milwaukee, which featured a keynote address on collaborative robotics and wide-ranging, information-packed sessions focused on crucial opportunities and challenges facing the industrial sector.

The event, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, focused on a theme of “Taking Charge of Change” and featured a welcome from Tim Wiora, Executive Director and Chief Executive of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, opening remarks from Gov. Scott Walker and a highly informative keynote address by Matt Fitzgerald, vice president of product for Rethink Robotics Inc., a Massachusetts-based producer of collaborative robots.

Wiora, Walker and Fitzgerald each touched on the current condition of manufacturing in Wisconsin and the possibilities and difficulties facing manufacturers of all sizes throughout the state. They also offered their perspectives on ways that will continue to allow Wisconsin Manufacturing to thrive.

Walker emphasized that manufacturing remains a key cog in Wisconsin’s economic engine. “This isn’t just a proud part of our heritage. It’s a part of our future,” Walker said.

He insisted that the Foxconn project, which involves a proposed $10 billion capital investment, primarily in Racine County, from the Taiwan-based manufacturer, along with an astonishing 13,000 potential jobs, will be dynamic for the state, but says even without it manufacturing in Wisconsin is healthy, growing and changing.

With the unemployment rate in Wisconsin at a historically low level, the state needs to focus on efforts to boost its manufacturing workforce as manufacturers struggle to fill open jobs, Walker said.

The talent gap turned out to be the most crucial issue, by a 7-to-1 ratio, in a recent WMEP Manufacturing Industry Operational Priorities Survey of the state’s manufacturers, Wiora said.

The WMEP conducted this survey to better understand Wisconsin manufacturers’ priorities and to assure the organization’s efforts are in alignment with manufacturers’ greatest needs.

Fitzgerald’s keynote speech focused on the benefits of collaborative robots for manufacturers, especially in light of ongoing workforce challenges. Robots have generated some controversy and a belief that they take jobs from humans, Fitzgerald noted.
“The reality is, there isn’t enough workforce out there. We need to think differently,” said Fitzgerald, who has been a member of the Rethink Robotics team since 2012 and a leader of the company’s product management team.

Most companies that purchase collaborative robots aren’t laying off workers and, in many cases, end up hiring additional employees, Fitzgerald insisted.

Manufacturers in Wisconsin are turning away work because they don’t have enough employees. Automation often allows companies to take on more work, he said.

“Automation can be a great solution. It’s really gaining traction,” he said.

Collaborative robots are safe, take up a small footprint, generate a quick return on investment and can be used for non-value-added tasks so that workers can be shifted to higher-skilled jobs, Fitzgerald pointed out.

The popularity of collaborative robots is being driven, in part, by their relatively low cost and ease of use, Fitzgerald said.
Manufacturing Matters! attendees also took part in 18 breakout sessions with three sessions each in the following conference tracks: Growth & Innovation; Productivity; C-Suite Essentials; Workforce Engagement; Technology & Innovation; and Wisconsin Industry Focus.

As expected, Foxconn, which plans to manufacture flat-panel displays in Wisconsin, turned out to be a topic of intense discussion at several of the sessions. Foxconn’s proposed project is by far the state’s largest economic development project and is the largest corporate attraction project in U.S. history, as measured by jobs.

“One of the biggest concerns that came out of Foxconn, is that we do not have the skilled workforce that they need,” said Kimberley Miller, who manages the Manpower Center for Recruiting Excellence, a centralized group servicing Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup’s global roster of clients with best in class sourcing, screening and task-based recruiting.

Racine area manufacturers are especially worried about what impact the massive Foxconn project will have on them and their workforces, Miller said. Racine’s unemployment rate is 3.3 percent, making competition for talent even more intense, she added.
Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Mark Hogan noted that Foxconn project would have an estimated $7 billion economic impact for the state.

“We would not have Foxconn if had not been for our (manufacturing) legacy,” Hogan said. Hogan expects Foxconn to be an international draw for talent.

“Workers won’t just come from Wisconsin and Illinois,” he said.

Tank Murdoch, a special advisor to Foxconn and the company’s first hire in Wisconsin, said the size of the project reflects the scale of the company. “It’s huge,” Murdoch said.

Jela Trask, Business and Investment Attraction Director for the WEDC, described the Foxconn project as “supply chain on steroids.” Foxconn operates in an established industry, which limits some of the risk tied to the project, she noted.

Although Foxconn served as a popular topic, presentations and panel discussions focused on a wide variety of other areas, including the benefits of Internet of Things in manufacturing.

The Internet of Things, which is the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects that enables them to send and receive data, can be a “perspective and a lens” that manufacturers can apply to every aspect of their operations, said Kelly Armstrong, Director of Sector Strategy Development for the WEDC.