Industry 4.0 is quickly changing the manufacturing industry, and manufacturers in the Quad Cities region have a unique competitive advantage to help them embrace the onslaught of new technologies. The Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub (the Hub) is an initiative of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce that helps companies evaluate and implement new technologies, and identify ways to optimize operations.

Curtis Burnett, the executive director of the Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub, is a loaned executive from Deere & Company with over 30 years of corporate manufacturing experience. Burnett explains that when local industry leaders saw the rise of Industry 4.0, and the potential impact it would have on the small and medium manufacturers (SMEs) that make up their global supply chain, they quickly recognized the need to build a support network to help SMEs evaluate and implement new technologies.

The Hub will guide manufacturers through those changes, whether it is in processes, technology, equipment, or skilled workforce, all with the help of the network of resource partners the Hub has established. With efforts focused in the three areas of operational excellence, leveraging technology, and sustained growth, work underway now will maintain and grow the region’s strength in manufacturing.  

Operational Excellence

The Hub is partnering with the Iowa State Center for Industrial Research and Services and the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center to complete operational assessments on small- to medium-sized manufacturers. The assessments evaluate a company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and identify areas in which to differentiate and grow.  

Burnett said assessments will allow the Hub to identify common, systematic problems that can be solved for many regional manufacturers at once. That creates economy of scale and will help small manufacturers stay up-to-date.

“When we understand what the opportunities are for improvement, the Hub becomes a connecting machine. Our role is to find the right partners to work with the manufacturers on the right opportunities,” Burnett said.

CIRAS and IMEC are federally-funded agencies able to provide education, training, and seminars based on regional needs

Leveraging technology

The Hub hired Washington-based consulting firm, NewEdge, to complete a study and technology roadmap. This roadmap will guide manufacturers through changes needed in the next three years in areas such as investment, training and education.

“We need to start training now and investing now in emerging technology,” Burnett said. “Many of our discussions focus on the tsunami of technology that is about to hit the factory floor. You can’t pick up an industrial manufacturing magazine without reading about the manufacturing revolution. There are new manufacturing processes, new materials, new machine forms,” Burnett continued, adding integration is also highly important.

Creating sustained growth

Once we are clear on the technologies that will impact us, we need to understand the manufacturing supply chain and create a diversification strategy based on our technology roadmap  The Hub has hired SDG consulting to support the supply chain analysis.  Their economic analysis experience and deep understanding of the DoD and private sector will be critical to identifying new opportunities.

The work is being funded with a $5.5 million Department of Defense grant, awarded to support economic revitalization in the bi-state region. The Chamber partnered with the University of Illinois on the grant, and offered the Quad-Cities to be pilot site for implementing a diversification strategy.

“The whole intent of the grant is to replicate the strategy throughout the state of Illinois,” Burnett said, adding about half of the funds will be used to launch strategies in East St. Louis, Peoria, Chicago and Rockford.

Burnett said there are growing opportunities for regional manufacturers and new companies who move into the region.

“There are many economic forces at play right now that will bring the focus back to local manufacturing,” he said. “If you choose to do business, you should always choose to do it across town rather than across the globe. Transportation costs are less and response time is quicker,” he said.

Burnett said the Quad City region plays a large role in the existing manufacturing ecosystem. “We have one of the highest densities in the country when it comes to manufacturers of parts and fabric assembly for industrial equipment. We have people working here who can do any type of fabrication. We have a deep and capable supply chain,” Burnett said.

More than 350 manufacturers are located in the Quad Cities region, including international industry leaders Deere & Company and Alcoa. Manufacturing generates about 20 percent of the region’s gross domestic product and employs roughly 18 percent of the workforce.

In addition, the region has a pool of dedicated “enablers” who support manufacturers. Those include providers of materials, technology, support, workforce, and higher education.

“This is a journey. I am not sure we will ever know when we are at the end of it,” Burnett said. “We are trying to continually look at and improve services and the offerings we have. Our mission is to help manufacturers grow, diversify and stay competitive.”

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