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MxD succeeds in encouraging firms of all sizes, schools to mix well

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing

One project, for example, involves RIT, IUPUI, Dow, Microsoft and ITAMCO

The figurative skull and crossbones marking the tech-demo and -validation period commonly called the “valley of death” are in the rearview mirror, MxD CEO Chandra Brown asserts: “We’re definitely coming out of the valley of death. We’re trying to take stuff out of pilot and get it out the door to truly impact manufacturing.”

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MxD CEO Chandra Brown, right, and Carolyn Lee of The Manufacturing Institute speak at a February event hosted at MxD.

The need in the U.S. is dire: “We’re in the middle of a digital revolution. Industry 4.0 is the future. So if we get this right, we will continue to be a global leader. But if we let this pass us by, that will have greater implications in the future,” she said.

The majority of manufacturers in the U.S. are “not in an advanced state,” Brown said, noting that smaller manufacturers are “completely behind the curve.

“So,” she added, “we have to help move them ahead.”

To that end, MxD (manufacturing times digital), the Chicago-based Manufacturing USA institute formerly called DMDII (Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation Institute), has in the last five years spent about $90 million on more than 60 R&D projects—that mix members large, medium and small in order to spur digital innovation inside not just the smaller manufacturers but also the behemoths.

“We have a really great model in that, once you join here, you sign an umbrella membership agreement so that things like intellectual property (IP) are worked out,” Brown said. “You still declare IP before you do a specific project. But … they all work together and when they go to workshops, they all get to talk.”

MxD, about a year back, set up a supply chain risk alert project, for example. It involves Rochester Institute of Technology, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Dow, Microsoft and small (by comparison) ITAMCO. This year, they began making a tool that will not only alert them to supply chain disruptions but also predict them.

Brown—who ran a builder of boats, bridges and streetcars and then became deputy assistant secretary of manufacturing at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where she helped established the network of 14 Manufacturing USA institutes, of which MxD is one—spoke about the innovation with the sort of proud-parent tone one hears at graduation ceremonies: “So think about it: This app will be applicable to every company. Every company has supply chain issues. It will take in all this data, including storms, politics. And your supply chain and logistics experts will get all of this data already sorted and almost instantaneously”—allowing for swift reactions to broken contracts, bottlenecks, bad weather and even fallout from outbreaks of disease.

“When the supply chain risk alert project started a year ago, we didn’t even know Coronavirus and all the other things that impact supply chain that are in the news right now,” she said.

MxD also boasts of a low-cost sensor retrofit kit its partners—namely ACE Clearwater Enterprises, Georgia Tech, Perisense and the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences—devised to help modernize legacy equipment. “You can now buy it and sensor-retrofit your old legacy equipment,” Brown said. “If you go on our shop floor, we can show you some close to World War II machinery. And you can use sensors and digitize it so it can at least tell you is it on or off.”

There are sure to be more digital tech innovations graduating in the near future from MxD. The 24,000-square-foot “future factory” housed in the same sort of airplane hangar that Brown works in, allows the likes of nearly 300 partners, including AT&T, Boeing, Caterpillar, John Deere, Dow, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, McKinsey, Rolls Royce, and Siemens, to play alongside small firms.

MxD partners recently demonstrated a virtual-reality training module to repair a Rolls Royce engine. “You put on the headset, and if you’re someone who is training to be in an MRO operation or a mechanic, you can actually understand how the engine functions and pull it apart and isolate different pieces, see it while it’s moving, stick your head in it while it’s moving,” she said.

The technology came about because Rolls Royce and Vision Three personnel were at MxD attending a workshop on a completely different topic. “They got to talking and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could…?’ It shows the art of the possible for the technology. And it is a nice example of what members come to do, which is to take something that they’re working on and put it in another context or environment where, particularly on the OEM or on the manufacturing supply chain side, there’s a great use for it, a great need for it.”

Brown marveled at the mixes that happen: “What I like about these stories is the likes of ITAMCO working with Dow. That would normally have never happened. They’re not even remotely similar: One’s discrete and one’s process. But they’re working together on a project. We have a lot of examples of that: We’re trying to solve problems that are too big for any one company.”

Of course, Boeing and Siemens have their own research facilities. “Why are they here? They’re here because, one, there are a lot of common problems in this digital, advanced manufacturing space, and it’s changing so fast the people who are going to win are getting the answers quicker and more cost effectively than everyone else. Here, it’s about diversity of opinions: You need to get all of these ideas circulating, and then, wow, you’re going to come to an answer a lot quicker than if you were just in your own company and your own space doing it. Here we’re allowing you exposure.”

Being exposed to “digital” can, of course, be challenging.

When Brown arrived as the nonprofit institute’s CEO in September 2018, she was pleasantly surprised at the future factory floor—“where they were really trying to make digital come alive.,” she recalled. “How do you demonstrate a digital thread, a digital twin? We are literally dealing in the invisible oftentimes.”

“I’m visual. I need to see stuff. And I kind of need to touch it. So I was surprised at the level of and depth in what you could see on the floor. It made it even clearer to me.”

MxD and its major funder, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), have erased cost as an issue for small manufacturers to get in the mix: It costs them $500 to join.

“We’re in the interest of the public good,” Brown said. “The Department of Defense doesn’t want just defense contractors either. We know that we have a great responsibility to help move the entire supply chain forward on this digital journey.”

MxD set to add roadshow to help it address digital workforce, cybersecurity issues

All of the Manufacturing USA institutes, including MxD, “are trying to double- and triple-down on workforce,” Brown said. “We know that’s a critical piece. I spent so many years battling the deficit of skilled workers in this country: I used to do metal fabrication, and welders, fitters and machinists are so hard to find. Millions of jobs are unfulfilled today.

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MxD CEO Chandra Brown takes part in a question-and-answer segment during the 2019 Manufacturing Leadership Council Summit in Anaheim, Calif.

“Now, we’re trying to get ahead of a pipeline issue,” she said. “We are focused on the workforce of the future. I need to train the digital experts, the data analysts, digital ethicists—sometimes we don’t even know what titles and skill sets will be needed 20 years from now. Industry 4.0 is about adaptability and flexibility. We need to make sure those things are built into the workforce. We also do not have the cyber workforce that we need here in the U.S. trained by any stretch of the imagination. We are very focused on the digital and cyber workforce of the future.”

The newest arrow in Brown’s quiver to attack the problem is a cyber roadshow.

Ohio. California. Pennsylvania. The roadshow will travel to “places where there are big concentrations of manufacturers,” she said.

“We want to reach the community that needs to know about this. We know we can’t fly everyone to Chicago, and we are committed to a national mission.”

When it gets rolling, the roadshow in its first year will take place once per quarter, Brown estimated.

After that pilot period, she added, “I would really like to scale that up. My vision is to do a lot more of these. We’ll work with large members. Let’s take John Deere or Boeing: Maybe we meet with their suppliers and help them and give them a cybersecurity kit.”

MOOCs (massive online open courses) are another possibility at MxD.
The institute has one and is developing more curriculum. “We are all about digital, so we’d like to do more online and more online training,” Brown said.
MxD’s staff of 40 full-timers tackles each pressing issue as it comes. It has had a blockchain tech workshop. And it will have 5G for manufacturing use cases on its floor in Chicago this year.

On the front burner now is DoD’s Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC), a new defense federal acquisition regulation (DFAR) that will end the practice of manufacturers assessing their own cybersecurity readiness.

“DoD is trying this year to roll out the policy,” Brown said. Manufacturers will soon be designated as Level One, Two or Three. And if they’re not yet at Level One, they will need to know what it will take to get there.

“And you need accredited folks to certify you and say you are doing things,” she said. “This is a huge change. It needs to happen. Unfortunately, there are tons of costs and time involved. So my job here, and the job of our cyber team, is how are we going to do cyber assessments and digital assessments?”

MxD has had plenty of practice, she was quick to point out.

“We work with the NIST overarching standard and their cybersecurity wheel, or framework. And if you come out to our shop floor, you’ll see that we actually have a cyber demonstration, and we do penetration tests. We’ve opened all the computers and the cells upright so manufacturers can see what happens when you’re protected in a segmented system vs. a non-segmented. You can come here, we can do a hack and show you what happens.”

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