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Instructor Steve Henkelman programs a CNC machine at Grand Rapids Community College. Credit: Dustin Dwyer

This month, we’re taking a look at some of the hidden assets of the industrial Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths.

We found one hidden asset right smack in the middle of our manufacturing sector. It’s a machine that’s in literally thousands of factories across the Midwest. And, though, you might not have heard of it before, the CNC machine – and the people who operate it – are at the core of our economy.

CNC stands for computer-numerically-controlled. And what the computerized machine does is it machines things. That sounds ridiculous unless you know that machine is not just a noun. It’s also a specific manufacturing process.

It’s when you cut away a material. It’s basically commercial sculpting.

“Machining is at, or very close to, the foundation of manufacturing,” says Peter Zelinski, senior editor at Modern Machine Shop magazine.

Zelinski says, even if you’ve never heard of it, CNC machining is essential to your life.

“Any product you pick up and touch, it’s not too many steps away from a machining process,” he says.

Most of the parts in your car engine come from a CNC machine. Your kitchen cabinets – CNC machine. Your computer case, your iPhone earbuds – well, no. But the mold that created them – CNC machine.

Zelinski says the growth of these machines represents the biggest change in manufacturing over the last 20 years.

The people who run them are factory workers. But they also have to be computer programmers.

CNC machinists are factory workers. But they need to be computer programmers too. Credit: Dustin Dwyer

Steve Henkelman is a teacher at Grand Rapids Community College. He points to a computer keypad, hanging off a big gray box, and tries to explain to me the programming code for CNC machines.

Trent Ohren is one of the students in Henkelman’s class.

Ohren says he has friends who do other, more traditional, manufacturing work. CNC machining is nothing like it.

“They’re in more of the automotive,” Ohren says. “So going to the bar right after they get out of work, as opposed to when I do, it’s night and day difference.   They’re covered in oil, and I smell like daisies.”

And the pay’s not too bad either.

Trent could come out of this 18-week class and get a job that pays close to double the minimum wage. More experienced machinists can make $50,000 – $60,000 a year. And they don’t need a four year degree to get there.

Right now, manufacturers are desperate for these workers.

Mike Hellman is one of the people looking for a skilled CNC machinist. He’s head of human resources for Display Pack, a company in Grand Rapids, Mich. Display Pack makes that impossible-to-open clear plastic packaging. The molds for the packaging are made on CNC machines.

Hellman’s been looking for a machinist for three months with no luck. A few years ago, machinists were getting laid off. Now no one can find them.

“People that I know that are in the industry, they’re back to work sometimes in a week,” Hellman says. “If they just put in the effort, start going and walking into the tool and die shops, they’re going to find somebody that’s in the same boat we are, where they’re looking for somebody.”

Last year, The Manufacturing Institute surveyed companies, and found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled in this country, because there aren’t enough good workers.

And the biggest chunk of that number is for skilled production workers, including CNC machinists.

Peter Zelinski from Modern Machine Shop magazine, says it’s one of the biggest problems U.S. manufacturers face.

“It wouldn’t be competition from China,” he says. “The number one concern right now is finding skilled people.”

And that’s really what the future of manufacturing in the Midwest is about. Smarter workers. Smarter machines. With computer numerically controlled machines at the heart of it all.

Previously, Changing Gears’s Kate Davidson reported on “lights-out machining,” a process that uses CNC machines. Niala Boodhoo reported on the high demand for high-skill workers, Dan Bobkoff asked “What is advanced manufacturing?” and we blogged about the soaring sales for machine tools, which includes CNC machines. 


Manufacturing has been at the center of the Midwest’s long-term decline, shedding some 8 million jobs over the past three decades. More recently, it has been at the forefront of the region’s economic recovery.

In October, manufacturing was the leading sector in the Midwest Economy Index, which measures economic activity in the region. It was, in fact, the only sector to make a positive contribution to the index, produced monthly by the Chicago Fed.

Changing Gears reporters Kate Davidson and Dan Bobkoff examined the current state of manufacturing in the Midwest recently for American Public Media’s Marketplace. They found that today’s successful Midwest manufacturers look “more like startups than smokestacks.”

In the first of two parts, Bobkoff profiles Cleveland-based Thogus Products, a once-traditional manufacturer that made money through mass production. Now it’s producing specialized orders and creating prototypes, services that are harder to accomplish from China.

“I don’t consider us a manufacturing company,” Thogus owner Matt Hlavin said. “We’re a technology and services company.”

In the second piece, Davidson examines “lights-out machining,” the practice of programming milling machines to continue running long after workers have left for the day. There aren’t statistics that quantify how many manufacturers utilize the practice, but industry experts see a growing trend.

“There’s really an explosion of lights-out machining in the small-and-medium-sized manufacturers,” says Debbie Holton with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “They’re using this to compensate for the fact that they’re having trouble finding skilled workers. They need to get more from less, and they’re increasing their productivity with this technology.”

 


Dan Bobkoff

The face of advanced manufacturing? David Bourne of CMU's Robotics Lab sits in a Humvee being built by a helpful robot.

Back in June, President Obama came to Pittsburgh to tout something called Advanced Manufacturing. He created a group to work on it, made up of government officials, academics, and industry. The point, the president says, is to promote innovation, make the country more competitive. But, we wanted to know:

What is advanced manufacturing anyway?

“Oh goodness,” said Mike Molnar when asked just that. “That’s one of those questions I should probably have a ready answer to.”

Molnar is the Chief Manufacturing Officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Advanced manufacturing is kind of his focus. But as I found, most people can’t agree on what it is.

It can be about new ways of making things, says Erica Fuchs of Carnegie Mellon University.

“It can be robots; it can be 3D printing,” Fuchs said.

Or, maybe it’s just companies building high tech products for newer industries.

“It could be just that brand new battery company, that brand new sensor company,” Fuchs added.

Some like Ned Hill of Cleveland State have a more flip answer.

“Advanced manufacturing is any manufacturing company that’s survived over the last twenty years,” he said.

Molnar of NIST took a second to come up with his own definition.

“Advanced manufacturing is the ability to make something nobody else can,” he said.

The President offered this definition back in June.

“It means how do we do things better, faster, cheaper to design and manufacture superior products that allow us to compete around the world” Mr. Obama said.

However we define it, advanced manufacturing has become a priority for Mr. Obama. He was speaking in front of a yellow robot at Carnegie Mellon University. The occasion was to announce a new partnership.

“All with one big goal,” he said. “And that is a renaissance of American manufacturing. We’re calling it AMP, A-M-P, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.”

The point says the administration, is to find and support new technologies that could create jobs and make American manufacturing more competitive. AMP is made up of engineering schools like Carnegie Mellon, plus industry and government officials. They’re having their first meeting this month.

Dan Bobkoff

This robotic arm has both a welding torch and a projector to help human workers know where to place bolts and perform other work.

And, when I visited Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh recently, I could see why the President came here to talk about the future of manufacturing.

“At the end of this robot is a projector!” said David Bourne, as he showed me the frame of a military-grade Humvee. He’s a principal scientist at CMU’s Robotics Institute.

An orange, robotic arm equipped with a welding torch, and, yes, a projector sits idly by. But this robot has no intention to replace humans. Bourne says it has a nobler mission: it’s going to help the human workers do what they do better.

“If we can get robots and people to work together,” he said, “then the economies come back into line because it’s easier to program robots to do what they’re good at, and we can project any kind of information onto the product in the right place so the person can go over and tighten something in exactly the right spot.”

Robots still don’t have opposable thumbs.

This friendly robot gets funding from DARPA, the same part of the Department of Defense that helped create the internet. And, like how the internet has grown to pervade nearly all aspects of our life, Bourne sees big implications for his technology.

“We’re going whole hog across the product spectrum, Bourne said. “I’m doing this kind of research for everything from cell phones, to this DARPA project for military vehicles, I’m working with Boeing for airplane wings. Same technology, different uses.”

And, that’s what this advanced manufacturing partnership is supposed to be about: helping emerging technologies that can help lots of industries and companies. Bourne thinks more manufacturers will switch from mass production to mass customization. That means churning out small batches of highly customized products, instead of thousands upon thousands of a single design.

The idea is that if America can get good at this high end manufacturing, and push into new materials and technologies, we can continue to have high paying jobs, even if it’s not as many as manufacturing’s heyday.

“It’s instead most likely going to be something where there are fewer people on the manufacturing line itself, but we need those people in order to have the jobs that are in innovation and for our country to continue to stay ahead,” said Erica Fuchs of Carnegie Mellon.

Fuchs’s specialty is engineering and public policy. And, she’s found that when we lose manufacturing, we also lose research and development. She says that’s because they go hand in hand. The person designing something often needs to walk next door to the factory to make sure it all comes together.

“The engineer needs to be there to figure out why the oven isn’t working today,” she said.

In June, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said [PDF link] that the US is losing the ability to make things invented here, like LED lights and components for TVs and smartphones. And, something else important: robots.

David Bourne at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab noted that the robot he showed me actually came from Switzerland.

“We’ve already done a pretty good job losing the robotics industry,” he said. “We haven’t lost the software part yet. It shows you just how fragile this is. If we fall asleep—this is a crossroads for American manufacturing. If we miss this one, it could be a generation before we have another opportunity like this. This is a big deal.”

And, that’s why those who care about making things are closely watching the President’s Advanced  Manufacturing Partnership, hoping something comes out of it that will make the Midwest and America a manufacturing power again.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Angry residents confront Emanuel. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel sought solutions for the city’s budget woes during a public meeting Monday night. He got more than he bargained for, according to reports from our partner station WBEZ. A question from a laid-off traffic employee led to an extended back-and-forth with union members in the audience. “I’m responsible to the city taxpayers and the city residents,” Emanuel said, referring to a projected $635 million budget deficit. Audience members yelled that they were taxpayers too.

2. Honda renovates Ohio plants. Honda announced Monday it would spend $355 million to refurbish four plants in Ohio, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The improvements come as the automaker returns to full production following the Japanese catastrophes. The Dispatch reports some jobs will be added, but specifics are not yet available. Honda has more than 13,000 employees in the Buckeye State.

3. Lawmakers seek tax-credit extension. Tax credits for advanced battery manufacturers in Michigan are scheduled to be phased out by Gov. Rick Snyder, but Democrats in the state Legislature want to extend the incentives packages. The Associated Press reported Monday that the Democratic proposal would include tax credits for battery production and facility construction, as well as credits for buying electric vehicles and charging stations.


We told you last month about the joint approach that two big cities in Kentucky — Lexington and Louisville — are taking to economic development. Well, they aren’t wasting any time in getting started.

The effort by Mayors Greg Fischer of Louisville and Jim Gray of Lexington kicked off on Thursday with an appearance before 1,100 people at a Leadership Louisville luncheon. The partnership will be called the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. Here’s the story from the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“We want the national decision makers, the international investment decision makers, to say, ‘we’ve got to play in the Bluegrass region,’” Fischer said. “So this is a question about us coming

Lexington's Gray (left) and Louisville's Fischer. Photo: Louisville Courier-Journal

together and being cooperative.”

The partnership was announced earlier this summer at the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago. The two cities, each home to major auto and parts plants, want to become a national center of advanced manufacturing. It’s a specialty that the Great Lakes states have always claimed as their own.

Is this an idea that our states should try? Would you like to see a partnership between Cleveland and Columbus, or Madison and Milwaukee? Or are towns better off in going it alone?


The Great Lakes region has always been known as a center of advanced manufacturing. But with auto jobs disappearing, that title may be up for grabs. Now, the mayors of Louisville and Lexington, KY, want to nab it.

Kentucky


Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, and Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, announced in Chicago on Thursday that they will team up for an 18-month, $250,000 study of how to turn their region into a “cluster” of advanced manufacturing expertise.

In doing so, the Kentucky cities hope to attract new investment, adding to the auto jobs the state has landed in recent years. The study, to be done by the Brookings Institution, was unveiled at the Clinton Global Initial America, where both mayors were on hand.

The two cities, which sit about 75 miles apart on Interstate 64, have gained thousands of automobile, auto parts and other manufacturing jobs over the past quarter century.

Louisville is home to a Ford assembly plant, while Toyota’s largest North American complex sits just a few miles from Lexington in Georgetown, KY, which opened in 1986.

“Louisville and Lexington, like America itself, need to ask what are our assets, what are our strengths and weaknesses, what can we leverage in new and inventive ways to create jobs and growth in a global marketplace,” Gray said.

Georgetown, and Kentucky itself, have become a model for other cities and states trying to attract investments from U.S.-based companies and international firms alike.

On Thursday, professor Michael Porter of Harvard University said regions such as the Midwest will have to find solutions to expand employment, rather than seek federal help.

Professor Michael Porter


“What we have in America is a collection of very different regional and local economies. The fundamental drivers of competitiveness are regional and local, they’re not in Washington,” Porter said.

He said regions had to capitalize on their “innate strengths” and build clusters, like the one the Kentucky mayors are trying to create, in order to attract jobs. Said Porter: “Regions that do this are regions that can succeed.”