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A Conversation with SME CEO Bob Willig

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

Looking back, 2020 was a year of challenge and change for manufacturing—and that’s an understatement. As the change continues in 2021, this is an auspicious time for a new leader at SME, the publisher of this magazine. Bob Willig, with a strong background of executive leadership in manufacturing, became executive director and CEO of SME on January 1. Brett Brune, editor in chief of Smart Manufacturing, and I recorded a podcast with Willig, focusing on SME and the manufacturing industry.

“First, 2020 required everyone to think about what the new normal would look like for our industry,” said Willig. “At SME, 2021 will be a combination of resuming some pre-pandemic activities while pivoting to new, more efficient ways of serving the manufacturing community. Our events group is ready to resume holding in-person events, once we can safely do so, because our industry is asking for them.”

I asked Willig about the outlook for manufacturing.

“It’s going to be a very good year,” he said. “The manufacturing industry is resilient and able to adapt to the changing needs of our community.” Willig said that post-pandemic, manufacturers will need workers with broader skillsets and capabilities. “There is an emerging need for a deeper level of workforce development, preparing workers for more complex, emerging roles,” he said. “SME is in a great position to support this. And expect to see our Tooling U-SME and workforce development activities continue to evolve and grow in 2021.”

While the skills gap in manufacturing is a big challenge, Willig sees it instead as an opportunity “to demonstrate the agility and prowess of our industry to move quickly and close this gap. The answer is right in front of us. SME is addressing this in multiple ways. Our education foundation creates partnerships to provide key opportunities, including our PRIME school program, which provides high school students with tangible and badly needed skills. This foundation also provides a variety of scholarships. And through the use of the student summit program, SME provides student members the opportunity to visit our shows and events.

“Our membership team also provides members with exposure to critical continuing education within SME, as well as other members, through our SME Connect program,” he continued. “Finally, Tooling U-SME is developing industry-leading training and development content, helping manufacturers to address the skills gap.”

Willig also noted that manufacturers must meld different cultures in a more inclusive and respectful way. “I’ve met many different people during my onboarding at SME, as well their dogs, cats, spouses—and their Amazon delivery guy—via video conferencing. There’s a message here. We’ve all gotten to know each other in a different way than we might have if we were sitting in a boardroom. Let’s continue that process.”

To listen to the podcast, visit

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