From Rust Belt to High Tech: Miller Ingenuity's Digital Transformation

The so-called Rust Belt has been in desperate need of a boost for some time. Can an injection of digital technology and innovative manufacturing help it to shine once again?

The Rust Belt is a (slightly derogatory) term for an area of the American Midwest and Great Lakes which was once a powerful industrial force in the steel and coal manufacturing sectors. However, thanks in part to declining interest in these products, increased automation, a switch to cheaper overseas production, and a move towards service-based industry, the region has suffered significant industrial and economic decline. Those who have failed to embrace the changes to the industrial landscape have seen rising poverty and dwindling populations.

Minnesota-based manufacturing powerhouse Miller Ingenuity believes it has the answer, however, and is looking to transform manufacturing from Rust Belt to High Tech.

Miller Ingenuity

The way Miller Ingenuity is achieving this is laid out in a new book - penned by CEO, Steven L. Blue - titled, Metamorphosis: From Rust-Belt to High-Tech in a 21st Century World. The book is designed to serve as a guide to other manufacturers in the Rust Belt region by laying out how Miller Ingenuity carried out its own digital transformation.

Digital transformation is not always a seamless, streamlined process, and all companies tend to encounter pitfalls and hurdles on their high-tech journey. With this new book, Miller Ingenuity is hoping to help its fellow Rust Belt manufacturers avoid some of these issues by learning from its own experiences.

"Let's assume that you're a Rust Belt manufacturer, and you make, plastic things, metal stamping, low tech, or no tech kind of products," said Blue. "You have a workforce that doesn't know how to do anything any different, and it's not their fault. So, you don't just one day grab that workforce, say, 'Guess what? We're going to make you all electronic engineers and digital guys and if you can't do that, we'll go hire a bunch of people who can.' That'd be really silly."

According to Miller Ingenuity, the way to avoid this issue is to create a workforce culture which is amenable to change. It's no good to simply bring change in with a pure focus on skills and other functional concerns, you need to instead work with your people, asking what their fears and concerns are and doing your best to allay them.

A Culture of Digital Transformation

Once fears have been quashed, you can help nurture a workforce which is excited about change and willing to embrace the technological advances which come with modern manufacturing techniques. The main reason the so-called Rust Belt suffered so much was because its manufacturing infrastructure was unprepared for the rapid advancement of the third and fourth industrial revolutions and, instead, slipped into decline.

"I tell CEOs all the time when I make keynote addresses," said Blue. "Your model in your mind when you're getting your organization ready for transformation, is you want a 'Cirque du Soleil' culture. You want people who come to work every day all jazzed up, and the only thing they want to do today is make today better than it was yesterday. That's what a Cirque du Soleil culture does. Every day their performance - they want to make it better than yesterday. And of course, the push back is, 'Well, we're not circus performers and these are employees and they hate their jobs.' Well, whose fault is that?"

Workers can understandably be fearful of change. There's a reason people tend to become more conservative (with a small "c") as they get older - because they're used to doing things a certain way and that's where they feel confident. If, after years or even decades of manufacturing experience you are suddenly told that a suite of new technology is being introduced and you'll need to relearn a job you are already comfortable with, the immediate reaction can often be to recoil from it.

Final Thoughts

By addressing the culture around change and introducing new innovations gradually (and with plenty of warning), your manufacturing staff can become energized and more inclined to embrace Industry 4.0 technology. This will help prevent the kind of rejection and decline witnessed in Rust Belt areas.

"I can't say that my style has changed a whole lot because my style has always been engaging very much, employee empowerment very much - recognize, reward, reinforce. That's been what it is," said Blue. "But I have to say, to change technology in a company, that affects every single person, every employee, every shareholder, every director."

You can hear Miller Ingenuity's CEO, Steven L. Blue speak at Connected Manufacturing Forum 2019, taking place in July at the Hilton Austin, Austin, TX.

Download the agenda today for more information and insights.

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