GM exec: Companies should know when, why to adopt new technology


From big data to smart wearables, advanced technology is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. But companies shouldn’t blindly rush into adopting the latest advances, a General Motors Co. executive said Friday.

“You have to be very careful about what you want to do with it,” said Gerald Johnson, GM’s executive vice president of global manufacturing. 

Johnson was the keynote speaker at the Advanced Manufacturing & Logistics event, an industry gathering presented by IBJ and Conexus Indiana. The event also included a panel discussion.

It’s easy to be lured by the latest and greatest new technology, Johnson said, but companies need to think about what problem the technology would solve and how it would integrate with existing operations. 

GM has about 165,000 employees worldwide, including more than 6,800 people at four Indiana locations: a vehicle assembly plant in Fort Wayne, a stamping plant in Marion, a casting plant in Bedford and a vehicle electronics plant in Kokomo.

He offered a few examples of how GM has integrated technology into its operations.

The company uses drones in its plants to go places where it would be dangerous or difficult to send humans. Drones, for instance, can hover overhead and capture bird’s-eye images of the plant’s operations.

Employees make use of exoskeletons—a device that fits over the arm, for example—to help them do their jobs with less strain on their bodies.

The company makes use of virtual training for employees, familiarizing them with new work processes in a virtual space before they start handling the physical objects.

Another key consideration, Johnson said, is how to integrate new technology with the company’s existing workforce—and whether the company is ready to do so.

GM, for instance, spends thousands of hours training employees at all levels, from production associates to executives, so that they understand the purpose and use of the technology the company is adopting. 

“If you’re not ready with people, then you’re just not ready,” Johnson said. “This is still a ‘people’ business.”

Panelists at the event offered similar advice.

“You have to start with, ‘How’s this going to improve profitability? How’s this going to improve quality? How’s this going to improve safety?’” said Kevin McGowan, an associate partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Cummins Inc.’s approach was to start with a focus on securing its data network and integrating the various phases of its operations, said Tim Millwood, the company’s vice president of global manufacturing. 

From there, the Columbus-based engine maker is looking at other technology options to see what makes the most sense to pursue.

“We don’t want to just chase the shiny object,” Millwood said. “We want it to be meaningful for us.”

At the same time, Millwood said, companies also shouldn’t assume that adopting new technology will be unaffordable. For instance, Cummins’ engineers have come up with creative solutions for adding technological connectivity to legacy equipment, at a cost of as little as $200 to $300.

“Everything about this doesn’t have to be really expensive.”

Kim Ryan, a senior vice president at Batesville-based Hillenbrand Inc., said it’s also important to keep the end customer in mind when incorporating technology into its products. Ryan is also the president of Coperion, a Hillenbrand company that makes industrial equipment.

It does no good to make high-tech products, Ryan said, if your customers don’t see the added value in the technology and aren’t willing to pay extra for it.


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