January – February 2020 Commentary

January February 2020 Commentary
Illustration by James Yang

Manufacturing – Industry 4.0

As technological innovations seemingly advance at the speed of light, it can be difficult to keep pace with new offerings in manufacturing, medicine, artificial intelligence, machine learning, or robotics. Every 18 months computer processing speed doubles, according to Moore’s Law, yet it seems much quicker.

Staying ahead in the technological race is no easy task, especially for small businesses. Large- and medium-sized companies typically have more resources to research the latest breakthroughs — Google recently claimed its new quantum computer, dubbed Sycamore, needed 200 seconds to perform a calculation that the world’s fastest supercomputer would take 10,000 years to match.

While much more development work is needed to harness and take advantage of the power of a quantum computer to boost efficiency and productivity, small businesses can no longer assume, as in years past, that large companies will pave the way for the introduction of beneficial technologies.

As Tom Kelly, executive director and CEO of Automation Alley in Troy, which has made a name for itself as Michigan’s Industry 4.0 knowledge center, notes, many small businesses have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to staying abreast of and utilizing the latest high-tech platforms. Yes, it can be

difficult to tap into Industry 4.0 principles, where every machine and system on or above a factory floor are equipped with sensors that link to computers and handheld devices, but standing pat isn’t an option.

Imagine being alerted by your computer on the night of the Academy Awards, via artificial intelligence, that Beyonce just walked across the red carpet wearing your company’s new beige lipstick. Orders start pouring into your factory. Normally, your team might take a few weeks to react to the surge in demand, but with artificial intelligence, you can respond to the trend and instantly order a change in production via a smartphone or a tablet. As a result, more beige lipstick will be rolling down the assembly line by the time the Best Picture award is announced.

With more businesses facing global competition due to ever-faster communication platforms via high-speed fiber networks, Kelly and other Industry 4.0 experts worry that small manufacturers in America will be left behind. China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and other nations are pouring million of dollars into advanced manufacturing, life sciences, cybersecurity, and alternative energy.

A potential technology gap is especially acute in metro Detroit, which has the largest concentration of tool-and-die shops in the world. It’s the secret sauce that drives our automotive and manufacturing sectors and, for years, other states and nations have tried to lure them away. While the effort has borne little fruit, that could change with new advances in sensor technology and communications systems like 5G.

I keep telling our guys, people don’t buy stuff from you because they like you; they buy stuff because you demonstrated that they get value for it.

— Peter Karmanos Jr., Chairman, Mad Dog Technology, Birmingham

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, companies with fewer than 500 workers are the lifeblood of the U.S. economy: They create two-thirds of net new jobs, and drive U.S. innovation and competitiveness. A new report, meanwhile, indicates small businesses account for 44 percent of U.S. economic activity — but new technologies, unless properly taken advantage of, could siphon our advantages overnight.

Automotive – Global Charge

While the United States has been slow to adapt to electric vehicles, it’s time our business, utility, and government leaders come together to extend the range of battery-powered vehicles and add many more charging stations. Left to our own devices, U.S. consumers have naturally been slow to embrace electric vehicles due to range anxiety and slow recharging times.

Case in point: Who wants to travel in an electric vehicle to New York from Detroit if, along the way, an eight-hour layover is required to recharge the batteries? And that’s if a public charging station can be found near a freeway interchange. For a family vacation in an electric vehicle, more time might be spent at recharging stations than on the vast, open roads that lead to the Grand Canyon or Great Smoky Mountains.

As we wait for the electric vehicle market to make greater headway in America, other nations are passing us by. It’s not because they’re smarter or more technologically advanced than us; rather, the rapid introduction of electric vehicles in Europe, China, and elsewhere is being driven by pollution.

Smog created by internal combustion engines and factories is literally choking off prosperity in heavily urbanized communities around the world. As a result, more government mandates that lower pollution levels are rapidly being introduced in foreign markets. If American leaders fail to respond to what is a seismic shift in demand for EVs globally, we risk the chance of being smoked by the competition.

Government – Adhere to the Constitution

Citizens who turn a blind eye to the impeachment inquiry in the U.S. Congress could one day regret their apathy. Consider the lesson from Lech Walesa, an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard along the Baltic Sea in Poland who co-founded the Solidarity trade union and organized nonviolent citizen dissent that brought an end to communist rule in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

During a recent visit to our region, he recalled the inefficiencies and utter waste the Iron Curtain had developed after World War II. He said government leaders in Washington, D.C., who today attempt to twist or reinterpret our constitution, do so in a bid to diminish their political rivals and gain more power over capital markets. 

“Unfortunately, in 1945 the Americans and the Allies allowed Stalin to take over Eastern Europe, and Poland with it,” he said during pre-dinner remarks in November as part of the Varner Vitality Lecture Series at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, held to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “We in Poland gave up our hope in the 1930s, and you see what happened.”

During his visit, Walesa, 75, wore a beige shirt under his suit jacket that featured the word “constitution.” He said free-state doctrines are sacred. “We can never give up those freedoms we fought for. What is the reason of having a constitution if it isn’t to be followed? The constitution must be followed to the letter, or evil will win over good.”