Manufacturing Oasis

Inventors from across the state put the world on wheels, introduced life-saving medical devices, and developed commercial aircraft for the masses.
Gentex employee
Gentex Corp. in Zeeland uses technology to run a distracted driving exercise. // Courtesy of Gentex

Before Henry Ford’s assembly line made the Model T affordable to the American public, cars were a luxury item out of reach of most people.

Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn changed that with the introduction of the moving assembly line. The innovation is credited to Ford engineer William “Pa” Klann, whose “aha moment” to speed up production came when he visited Swift and Co.’s slaughterhouse in Chicago. There, Klann observed the disassembly of beef carcasses traveling along a moving line where workers removed different parts of the animal, consequently speeding up the process.

Klann’s observation hatched the first mass-produced car on an assembly line on Oct. 7, 1913, at the Highland Park Ford Plant in Highland Park, a small city set inside Detroit. The decreased production costs from installing multiple assembly lines enabled Ford to  sell his Model Ts to a growing American middle class for around $575 by 1920. What’s more, the so-called Tin Lizzie made traveling in the early 20th century safer and faster.

Today, manufacturing innovations continue to move Michigan and the world forward, thanks to entrepreneurs and a skilled workforce. They continually demonstrate that the state has stepped into its own when it comes to producing groundbreaking products that have changed the lives of countless people.

Groundbreaking manufacturers and inventors who hailed from Michigan saved the world from Nazi tyranny during World War II, made commercial flight possible, advanced road safety, developed the first cereal brands, brought ginger ale to the soft drink market, developed a hospital bed that reduces bedsores, made penicillin widely available in synthetic form, and created the five-day workweek.

student entrepreneurs
student entrepreneurs meet at Michigan State University in East Lansing. // Courtesy of Michigan State University

Michigan continues to be a fertile ground for manufacturing inventions.

“It’s all about the quality of the thinking,” says Jeff DeBoer, chairman of the Michigan Design Council in Walled Lake, a public-private advisory board that includes business and education leaders from leading design schools, as well top companies including Whirlpool, Herman Miller, General Motors Co., and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp., which offers business assistance services and capital programs for business attraction and acceleration, launched the MDC in 2015 so K-12 students could solve a single design challenge in an attempt to capture the Michigan Design Prize. The goal of the MDC is to nurture industrial design skills and inspire young minds to consider a career as an industrial designer. Its annual Michigan Design Prize is a competition that encourages students to use their imaginations in ways they might not have otherwise considered.

In turn, competition winners have the opportunity to bring their ideas to reality by collaborating with top Michigan industrial designers. The 2020 competition challenged students to design a product to help Michigan residents grow, transport, cook, package, or serve healthy food sourced from within the state.

Michigan has the highest concentration of industrial designers in the U.S. — more than 4,300 — according to the Michigan Design Council in Lansing. These individuals, who develop concepts and designs for a broad spectrum of manufactured projects, are a key piece of Michigan’s manufacturing supply chain: Every industrial designer creates eight additional jobs, which equates to about 32,000 jobs in Michigan, the MDC reports.

Chemistry is part of the equation when developing auto safety solutions at Gentex. // Courtesy of Gentex

The world’s first, largest, and most advanced manufacturing economy was developed in Detroit starting in the 1840s, and today the entire state of Michigan pulsates with maker spaces and a skilled workforce capable of building anything. The long-gone era of a tinkerer working by candlelight has given way to advances that include robotic laser-cutting, digital production, sensor arrays, rapid prototyping, and autonomous transportation — with the hardware skills to make it all happen.

Apart from crafting products, tools, equipment, and machines, industrial designers play a key role in shaping such critical needs as the tabletop Obi robotic feeding device and dining assistant, which enables quadriplegics to feed themselves. “It’s liberated people who could not feed and care for themselves, and (has) given them a newfound freedom,” DeBoer says.

Other products Michigan’s industrial designers have introduced to the world include barbecue grills, refrigerators, the electric toothbrush, and golf carts, among thousands of other items.

“An industrial designer literally is a person who works with the interaction of technology and art, solving functional problems to improve people’s lives — but also beautifying compelling products,” DeBoer says. “Industrial design is geared toward mass-manufacturing products that work better. Beyond that, especially in the past 15 years to 20 years, (it has contributed to) transportation design, and controls on your phone and car. Physical clay modeling innovation strategy, (in which students and others) create things that don’t exist yet, are (also) part of the industrial design mix.

Any student in any major or grade level can come to us with an idea.

— Paul Jaques, co-director at MSU’s Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Michigan State University in East Lansing holds a key piece of the innovation puzzle, nudging entrepreneurial-minded students to create their own products from scratch before marketing their inventions.

Paul Jaques, co-director of MSU’s Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, formerly the MSU Spartan Innovation Center, says experiential learning opportunities and research often deliver results.

“Any student in any major or grade level can come to us with an idea,” Jaques says. “It can be an idea that can make money or a social idea. They don’t need to be an expert to build an app or create a physical product. We’ve learned, in the past seven years, that they have a lot of the same needs. We walk them through a problem, which we call discovery and launch.

“We hit certain milestones as we walk them through the process. It would be nice if some of these ideas flourish and make great money. Others go through the process and get good experience and a good job. There’s success in both of those,” Jaques says.

An industrial designer literally is a person who works with the interaction of technology and art, solving functional problems to improve people’s lives …”

— Jeff DeBoer, chairman of the Michigan Design Council

To help drive awareness, the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation holds an annual Burgess New Venture Challenge, which is akin to a “Shark Tank” competition. A pitch contest brings together Michigan State University student entrepreneurs and a panel of judges that’s made up of business leaders from across Michigan’s entrepreneurial landscape. Last year, 15 MSU student startups competed for $40,000 in scholarship funding by pitching their business ideas.

Michigan’s ingenuity also is saving lives on the road. Gentex Corp., for example, is safeguarding people by preventing distracted driving. Founded in 1974 by Fred Bauer, the Zeeland-based technology company creates, designs, and produces a range of transportation products, including automatic-dimming rearview mirrors that darken to reduce glare from the headlamps of vehicles approaching from the rear. The brighter the glare, the darker the mirror becomes, making nighttime driving safer.

The Gentex team, made up of 6,000 workers, 5,800 of whom are based in Zeeland, also developed SmartBeam, a low-resolution camera that automatically dims a vehicle’s high beams for oncoming traffic. Another offering is the In Lane Keeping mode, which alerts drivers to unsafe conditions by vibrating the steering wheel.

Driver Alert, meanwhile, monitors a vehicle’s lane position and alerts drivers who may not be completely focused on their driving. If the system picks up clues that a driver is becoming tired, a coffee cup warning light appears on the dashboard instrument cluster and suggests that they may need a break. Certain components, including the camera and microprocessor, are integrated into a Gentex interior auto-dimming mirror.

“What we quickly learned is that the (rearview) mirror is in an excellent location in the vehicle to be used as an electronic module,” says Dan Quintanilla, Gentex Corp.’s manufacturing recruiting manager. “We’ve integrated over 100 different features into the mirror. Those include microphones for hands-free use and SmartBeam, which consists of a little camera imager that automatically turns high beams off.”

MSU students
Max Offerman, a senior majoring in environmental studies and sustainability at MSU (center)shares ideas over lunch. // Courtesy of Michigan State University

Together with the Mayo Clinic, Gentex co-developed a smart lighting system for medical applications. A series of flush, ceiling-mounted lighting units containing banks of adjustable LED arrays work in concert to place focused illumination when and where it’s needed. The system uses voice commands, hand gestures, or a hand-held tracking device to light a specific area. An integrated machine-vision camera then orchestrates light-array
activation, intensity, and direction to lessen shadows and create optimal lighting conditions within a defined surgical field.

“Now, a surgeon (doesn’t) have to operate the lights,” Quintanilla says. “A camera (can) follow their movements and automatically adjust a light’s intensity, location, color, and temperature, all to eliminate shadows and glare, and put light in the surgical field when and where the surgeon needs it.”

Manufacturing is an employment juggernaut in Michigan. More than 600,000 workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, ranking second only to health care, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. The majority of those production jobs are connected, but not limited, to the automotive industry.

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the manufacturing sector experienced a significant expansion, nearly doubling Michigan’s private-sector rate of employment growth.

A salient example of how innovation boosts manufacturing employment is Auburn Hills-based Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Gentex workers
Workers from Gentex turn ideas into products. // Courtesy of Gentex

FCA plans to invest $4.5 billion in five of its existing Michigan plants, including creating a new assembly plant in Detroit next to its Jefferson North Assembly Plant. FCA’s strategy is to meet growing demand with a product revamp of its Jeep and Ram brands, including production of two new Jeep-branded white space products, as well as plug-in hybrid models of four Jeeps at three of its plants. Such innovations will reduce the need for gas and decrease Michigan’s carbon footprint among vehicles that include the Wagoneer, Grand Wagoneer, and Grand Cherokee.

These projects are expected to create nearly 6,500 new jobs for electricians, pipefitters, die welders, millwrights, toolmakers, die makers, boiler operators, and machine repair specialists, to name a few.

“White space” is key to FCA’s manufacturing innovation. It involves scouting unmet and unarticulated needs, to create innovation opportunities. White space is a process and tool that allows FCA to look up and down the value chain with a new lens, help uncover opportunities that aren’t obvious, and identify new openings once outside the boundaries of FCA. It also helps FCA pinpoint opportunities for potential advanced technology in existing products. The overall intent is to garner new profit growth by defining potential gaps in existing markets, such as demand for greener vehicles.

Demand for products, technology advancements, and an in-demand workforce make Michigan a sought-after manufacturing state, according to Marcia Black-Watson, industry engagement division administrator for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Known as an industry cluster, Michigan has a geographic concentration of related employers, industry suppliers, and support institutions in a product or service field.

Gentex worker
A worker at Gentex inspects a finished circuit board for an automotive safety system before testing. // Courtesy of Gentex

The state’s employment subcultures reflect a diverse array of jobs that are making a difference around the world. They include manufacturing in the automotive, metals, machinery, chemical, food and beverage, and furniture industries, as well as computer, electronic, and natural resource products.

Michigan manufacturing has made great strides in recovering its lost workforce since 2009, having nearly returned to its pre-recessionary level of employment. The average weekly wage today, $1,276, is above the state average wage of $1,006. This puts manufacturing wages right in the middle, with the pay rate in IT topping the list at $1,662 and agriculture holding the bottom spot, at $816 per week.

Michigan makers tend to be older when compared with individuals in other occupations; the largest percentage of workers is between the ages of 45 and 64. As a result, younger workers are in high demand, Black-Watson says.

“As we see the generations of today, they tend to be more mobile, and they certainly have skill sets … that allow them to pursue many careers in manufacturing. The recession experience shouldn’t deter someone from seeking manufacturing. These are different jobs, even from 10 years ago,” Black-Watson says.

“The diversification of products actually produced an increase in technology and the (overall) manufacturing processes. This really speaks to the health of manufacturing. Manufacturers have adjusted to the economy by keeping up with technology and really preparing the workforce for those technological changes within their industries.”

The Inventors

Toasted corn flakes. Commercial aviation. Penicillin. Concrete roads. Michigan abounds with manufacturing and labor force innovations that have fed adults and children, helped win World War II, conquered deadly bacteria, and more.

Michigan Maker Milestones:

  • More than 100 years ago, W.K. Kellogg launched the modern cereal industry in Battle Creek. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes evolved from being a cereal that was served at the Battle Creek Sanitarium to food that now is enjoyed at breakfast tables around the world. Mass production of ready-to-eat cereal also created a new market for grains grown in Michigan.
  • Battle Creek-born organic chemist John C. Sheehan was the first to create synthetic penicillin V, an antibiotic that fights bacteria in the body. Over the course of a four-decades-long career, he obtained more than 30 patents. His research also led to the creation of steroids, alkaloids, antibiotics, and peptides.
  • The Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, established by Chrysler Corp. in 1940, was the first manufacturing plant in the U.S. built for the mass production of tanks. Among the war vehicles it produced was the M4 Sherman tank, designed to be as simple to drive as a car.
  • Wayne County Road Commissioner Edward N. Hines developed white- and yellow-lined roads in 1911, a major advancement in road safety. Hines got the idea after seeing a trail of milk from a leaky dairy truck leave a dotted line on a street. It also was under Hines’ direction that the first mile of concrete roadway was built: a section of Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile roads.
  • Homer Stryker, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of Kalamazoo-based Stryker Corp., developed a hospital bed to reduce the incidence of bedsores in bed-ridden patients. He also developed an oscillating cutter saw for the safe removal of bone and plaster casts. Last year, the company posted $14.5 billion in revenue.
  • Detroit native William Edward Boeing’s career took flight after founding Boeing Co. — which obtained orders from the U.S. Navy for 50 planes that were used during World War I — in 1916. The company went on to develop commercial aircraft. Through acquisitions and divestments, William Boeing also formed United Technologies Corp. and United Airlines.
  • In the 1940s, Detroit native John T. Parsons, along with Frank L. Stulen, pioneered numerical controls that led to computer-controlled machining tools such as drills and lathes, as well as 3-D printers. The pair also advanced numerous other innovations, including helicopter rotor blades and tapered wings for military aircraft.
  • Lansing native Donald B. Keck, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics from Michigan State University, was instrumental in the development of the first optical fiber, an innovation now called fiber optics and used in all manner of communications across the globe and on the International Space Station.
  • Daniel Frank Gerber began manufacturing strained baby food in 1927 in Fremont, north of Grand Rapids. By 1928, he had developed five products for the market: beef vegetable soup, strained peas, prunes, carrots, and spinach. Six months later, Gerber’s baby foods were distributed nationwide. The brand, now owned by Nestle, offers more than 190 products in 80 countries, with labeling in 16 languages.
  • Credit the Civil War for making possible the ginger ale drink Vernors. Detroit pharmacist James Vernor created a new drink but stored it in an oak cask in his pharmacy when he enlisted in the 4th Michigan Calvary in 1862. Four years later, he opened the keg and discovered a transformed drink.
  • In 1937, auto plant workers staged a sit-down strike in Flint to protest bleak conditions at General Motors that included no bathroom breaks, no benefits or sick pay, and no safety standards. Negotiations between GM and the United Auto Workers ultimately improved working conditions. The federal government showed its support when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established a minimum wage and overtime pay, and ended child labor.