Manufacturers embrace advanced technology, but carefully

A growing number of Hoosier manufacturers is embracing advanced technology to improve productivity and profits—but the companies say choosing the right tech and implementing it can be challenging.

Industry 4.0 is a hot topic in the manufacturing industry. The term means bringing data analytics, cobots, 3D printing and other technology into the manufacturing process, and the concept is catching on fast among Indiana manufacturers.

According to a survey released last week by Indianapolis-based Conexus Indiana and the Indiana University Kelley School of Business at IUPUI, 27% of Indiana manufacturers say they’ve implemented one or more advanced technologies into their operations. Another 16% say they are currently doing a technology pilot test.

Mitch Landess

That’s a big jump from last year’s survey, when those percentages were 15% and 6%, respectively, and when many respondents indicated they hadn’t even heard the term Industry 4.0, said Mitch Landess, Conexus’ vice president of innovation and digital transformation.

The 2021 survey included responses gathered in March and April from 135 manufacturers from around Indiana. The 2020 survey was based on responses from 110 companies in February and March of that year.

“Things certainly changed in the last year,” Landess said. “Industry 4.0 is really continuing to accelerate forward.”

One of the other key points in the survey: Manufacturers have a lot of potential technologies to choose from, and some are gaining more traction than others.

“Not everything’s going to be a fit for every industry. But the reality is, you’ve got to be looking at them all because, if you aren’t, your competition is,” said Bob Markley, executive vice president at Addman Engineering.

Addman uses additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, to make metal and polymer parts and tools. The company is based in a suburb of Fort Myers, Florida, and has its production facility in Westfield.

Addman received a $150,000 Manufacturing Readiness Grant this fall and used the money to purchase a 3D printer that produces parts from metal. The printer has worked so well that Addman is planning to buy two more.

The company also invested in a laser scanner that can reverse-engineer parts and keep the data in a digital “warehouse.” The data can later be retrieved to produce a part upon demand.

Markley said Addman is also in the process of implementing machine sensors that can gather data and collect it in a central source for machine maintenance purposes. The company is working toward creating a fully digital and paperless production system.

Jeff Frazee, plant manager of Addman Engineering’s Westfield facility, operates 3D printing equipment the company recently purchased with a Manufacturing Readiness Grant. The printer has worked so well that Addman is planning to buy two more. (Photo courtesy of Michael Durr Photography)

What to buy?

Indianapolis-based IMH Products–which does metal fabrication, metal stamping and machining–has recently invested in a couple of technologies. One is new software that allows the company to determine the most efficient way to produce a batch of parts with the least amount of waste.

Eric Odmark

IMH President Eric Odmark said the software has been a big success, resulting in an average 6% to 7% reduction in materials costs because parts can now be produced with less scrap. The company should see a return on its six-figure investment in a couple of months.

But Odmark said the company did a good deal of research before investing in this software, seeking proposals from potential vendors and doing on-site testing and simulations. The company also looked to trade organizations for guidance.

“You can’t really afford to get it wrong,” Odmark said. “It’s a tough balancing act, trying to figure out the right stuff.”

The main criteria for IMH, he said, is that the technology must integrate with the company’s existing systems—and it must be easy to train employees to use it.

IMH currently has about 180 employees, up from about 100 a year ago, and one of its biggest challenges is finding enough employees who are willing to learn the necessary tech skills.

IMH also purchased its first cobot this year—a programmable robot that can be used for small-batch welding jobs. The company’s traditional robots are not as easy to repurpose for different tasks, which means it’s not economical to reprogram them for lower-volume jobs.

Odmark said IMH actually looked at cobots a few years ago, but the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now, and the cobots were far less user-friendly. Recent advances meant this year seemed the right time to invest.

‘Enormous dividends’

Columbus-based Precise Tooling Solutions Inc., which makes molds for plastic injection parts, has had success with machine-monitoring technology it added late last year.

The technology can sense when a machine is actively in use and when it’s idle, giving the company data it can use to minimize down time.

“It’s paid enormous dividends,” said the company’s CEO and owner, Don Dumoulin.

Upon installing the sensors, Dumoulin said, Precise Tooling learned that its cutting machines were in use only about 20% of the time. At other times, operators might be loading materials into the machine or changing its settings for the next job; or they might be idle because their next batch of work hadn’t arrived.

Using sensor data, the company was able to make efficiency improvements so that the machines are now in use about 40% of the time.

Bob Goosen

Sensors are not new technology, but they were too costly to consider until the price came down recently, Dumoulin said. He said the company is also looking into adding cobots at some point.

In considering his technology options, Dumoulin said he reached out to Purdue University’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, an organization on whose advisory board he serves.

MEP operates a technology center in Carmel where companies can learn about various technologies. It also offers free on-site assessments for manufacturers that need advice on technology adoption.

“We’ve seen a surge of interest in these advanced technologies,” said Bob Goosen, MEP’s associate director of engineering and technology services. “Over the past nine months, we’ve seen probably double the amounts of requests for assistance.”

The ongoing labor shortage is likely driving a lot of this increased interest, Goosen said.

Jeff Frazee, plant manager of Addman Engineering’s Westfield facility, operates 3D printing equipment the company recently purchased with a Manufacturing Readiness Grant. The printer has worked so well that Addman is planning to buy two more. (Photo courtesy of Michael Durr Photography)

Usefulness

Cobots and 3D printing are two examples of advanced technologies that are seeing increased acceptance, according to the Conexus/Kelley School survey.

In this year’s survey, 22% of respondents said they use cobots and find them useful, up from only 6% a year ago. And 39% of respondents this year said they use 3D printing and find it useful, up from 24% last year.

On the other side of the spectrum, virtual reality/augmented reality is an example of a technology that hasn’t caught on in manufacturing. Only 5% of respondents said they use the technology and find it useful, while 32% said they tried it but didn’t find it useful.

Mark Frohlich

It’s too early to say for sure, though, which technologies will end up being useful in manufacturing, said Mark Frohlich, associate professor of operations management and director of the Center for Excellence in Manufacturing at the Kelley School at IUPUI.

“Industry 4.0 as a revolution will play out over, probably, 20 years,” Frohlich said.

It can take a while for a technology’s usefulness to become apparent, he said, citing bar-code technology as an example. The bar code is now a standard tool for tracking inventory in manufacturing and logistics, but the early technology was clunky and did not catch on right away.

“I can remember when bar-coding first came out and people were saying, ‘Why would I waste my time on that silly thing?’” Frohlich recalled.

But as a technology improves and more people implement it, they often start to see ways it might be useful, either by itself or in connection with another technology.

As an example, Conexus’ Landess said, industrial robots have been around for decades. Over time, people saw the opportunity to make robots safer and easier to program, and the concept of the cobot was born.

“Once you hit a certain critical mass of use, innovation happens,” he said.•

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