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Updated: November 2, 2020

CT manufacturers face increasing pressure to adopt ‘Industry 4.0’ technologies

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology President Ron Angelo at the organization’s East Hartford advanced manufacturing facility.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever

Middlefield plastic molds manufacturer Wepco Plastics Inc. just bought a 3D printer, a technology that’s rapidly moving from being considered cutting edge, to a necessity — even for small producers. 

In Enfield, Phoenix Manufacturing recently installed a robotic machining array on its production floor. 

“It’s so advanced that the machine itself will know if a tool is broken, or whether or not a hole is being drilled straight,” said Phoenix President Glenn Ford.

Across Connecticut, manufacturers big and small are researching, buying and installing new technology to keep up with current trends toward automation, additive manufacturing and software that enables companies to put legions of model and blueprint data on a single computer file. 

The investment — to the tune of millions of dollars — comes as Connecticut manufacturers face increasing pressure to remain competitive, especially with companies in lower-cost states and countries. Jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney’s recent decision to invest $650 million in a new facility in lower-cost North Carolina, rather than its home state of Connecticut, underscores competitive pressures manufacturers here face.

Photo | Contributed
Employees at Wepco Plastics Inc. in Middlefield.

Advanced manufacturing technologies like 3D printers or AI-enabled machines are quickly moving from impressive bells and whistles to industry standard equipment as they help companies make products with greater efficiency and less waste.

However, there are concerns that some state manufacturers aren’t moving quick enough — or don’t have the scale or resources — to adapt to “Industry 4.0,” a term used to describe the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing practices.

“I think it would make us more competitive,” if more in-state manufacturers adopted new technology, said Tom Maloney, chief technology officer at the quasi-public Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT), which advises companies on leading-edge equipment. “The companies just don’t have the right computers, software or personnel to work with this equipment right now.”

Maloney said tech adoption will become increasingly important over the next two to five years because recent advances in some manufacturing equipment make the design and production processes simpler and cheaper for customers. 

Model-based definition, for example, allows designers to place actual product dimensions, manufacturing instructions and other notes directly on a 3D model, making it easier for the producer to interpret how to make a product, Maloney said. This requires high-powered computers and enables customers to send manufacturers all information about a product on a single computer file.

“The goal for the [customer] is to be able to send out model-based definition files [to manufacturers],” Maloney said. “I believe soon it will be a requirement in manufacturing; you’ll have to have model-based capabilities.”

Additionally, while 3D printing is currently being used mostly for prototypes and lower-volume manufacturing, it could be a game-changer in the industry. Traditional manufacturing is subtractive, meaning you start with a block of material, and cut from it to form a screw, or plastic component. 3D printing is additive, meaning you start with nothing, and add material to form the product.

It can be both a speedier and more cost-effective manufacturing method, proponents say.

Long-term gain

Charles Daniels, CEO, Wepco Plastics

Wepco Plastics in May spent about $100,000 on its new 3D printer, a large purchase for a 34-employee company that does about $3 million in annual revenue, said CEO Charles Daniels.

But even smaller manufacturers can’t ignore the trend toward higher tech, and since Wepco can’t realistically revamp its entire operation with all state-of-the-art equipment, 3D printing made sense as a priority.

“As a manufacturer, it’s important to first be aware of this,” Daniels said. “For us, specifically, this was a technology that was coming into our space, which is lower-volume plastic parts.”

In addition to cutting the time it takes for Wepco to make a plastic mold from about two weeks to two days, the purchase enabled the company to shift production to making personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, it has found new customers, including Hartford Hospital and the Department of Correction.

The state, which has various programs to help small producers purchase advanced technology, helped fund Wepco’s 3D-printer purchase, Daniels said. 

Ford, of aerospace parts maker Phoenix Manufacturing, said his company, which employs 89 people and typically earns about $14 million per year, plans to buy a 3D printer by the end of 2020.

The purchase will allow the company to additively manufacture molds and models for tools. 

The machining robots Phoenix already has installed collect data on every step of the manufacturing process, allowing the company to more quickly make production adjustments for efficiency. 

Photo | Contributed
Phoenix Manufacturing President Glenn Ford.

Phoenix is one of many manufacturers currently working with CCAT to learn about what new technologies are available in the industry, how they’re used and which ones make the most sense to adopt. 

Investing in new technology isn’t easy for small companies, said CCAT CEO Ron Angelo.

Manufacturers must weigh the immediate cost and disruption to their operations against the long-term need to adapt to what will become the industry’s standards.

“They have to make a big commitment of manpower of some of their most skilled, experienced people to be part of that technology adoption,” Angelo said. 

Competitive advantage

One of CCAT’s most important functions is bringing local manufacturers into the organization’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in East Hartford, a 20,000-square-foot space that has cutting-edge technology, Angelo said. When producers see how the machines are used, and how they could improve their operations, it gets them thinking less in terms of whether they should invest in new technology and more in terms of how they could do it.

It’s important that CCAT is teaching interested manufacturers about new technological options, said Connecticut’s Chief Manufacturing Officer Colin Cooper. Through CCAT, smaller producers are learning about what new technologies exist, and which ones make the most sense for their business to invest in. 

“I think there’s an opportunity for us to gain a competitive advantage relative to other regions if we adopt these things quickly,” Cooper said. “I don’t think we’re behind other regions or ahead of other regions, but I think we have an opportunity to come out ahead if we coordinate efforts.”

CONNSTEP, a nonprofit manufacturing consulting firm, has also been advising clients to use resources like CCAT to figure out what advanced technologies could help their businesses and how they could buy and implement them, said Jeff Orszak, the organization’s director of strategic growth and technology.

It’s key for smaller manufacturers to go about upgrading equipment in a thoughtful way, rather than just lunging for the shiniest new object, Orszak said. He’s seeing a lot of companies investing in Internet of Things (IoT) tech that alerts users to maintenance issues in real time, and cybersecurity infrastructure in addition to additive technology. 

While it may take some time for most manufacturers across the world to adopt these emerging technologies, Orszak thinks if and when they become the industry standard, Connecticut companies will have an easier time than others due to the state’s highly educated workforce.

“I see this as a strong advantage for Connecticut,” Orszak said. “I think we’re in a better position than many regions.”

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November 18, 2020

Super informative. Sounds like a lot of great changes will be happening in CT!

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