August 4, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Technology, skills moving auto industry forward and creating jobs

Acme— It’s not your father’s shop floor.

Automotive manufacturing has changed, executives from suppliers and automakers said Monday on the first day of the Center for Automotive Research’s annual Management Briefing Seminars held near Traverse City.

Grimy shop floors with man-powered assembly lines have given way to clean, high-tech centers where robots and Google Glass headsets are as common as air wrenches. And as innovation allows manufacturing to integrate technology, the skills needed to work in the industry are changing, too.

“There’s a perception manufacturing is still in the Dark Ages, that people are still banging on hammers putting things together,” said Jason Prater, vice president of development for cloud-based manufacturing software company Plex Systems. “That’s not true. We are the leading edge.”

Prater said Plex is using the cloud as well as wearable technology and connected devices to help make manufacturing easier. “The cloud is allowing us to connect across the globe,” Prater said. “Innovation that happens in China we need to embrace here in the U.S. as fast as we can.”

Prater says in the future, manufacturers could use monitoring watches to gauge employee health or connected safety vests that would alert a machine operator if they were in danger of running into someone.

“Turning people into walking sensors ... is going to be the future,” Prater said.

Cathy Clegg, North America manufacturing president for General Motors Co., said the Detroit automaker is using technology to drive innovation in manufacturing. “When we say innovation, we mean something very specific,” she said in a speech. “It’s what happens when ideas and patents are put to practical use.”

Clegg said GM has been testing Google Glass in paint departments, communications, documentation and other areas. The automaker is also using advanced laser scanning to create three-dimensional images of manufacturing facilities that help reduce costs of replacing and upgrading equipment as engineers can see where best to place items in the room.

New advances in auto manufacturing have led to new job opportunities.

In a new study released in June, the U.S. Commerce Department said manufacturing output has increased 38 percent and has added 640,000 jobs since the recession, according to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. Michigan, along with four other states, accounts for more than half of those jobs.

The state has a number of tech accelerators that are helping create those jobs. A May economic development report found Metro Detroit’s top four accelerators — Midtown’s TechTown, Troy’s Automation Alley, Ann Arbor SPARK and the Macomb-Oakland University INCubator — account for more than 7,000 tech jobs and 225 tech companies that have resulted in $300 million in follow-on investment. Many of those jobs deal with automotive manufacturing.

Still, the state is suffering from a skills gap as it tries to recruit new manufacturing workers after thousands left during the Great Recession.

“Manufacturing is actually looked down upon by many,” said David Dauch, president and CEO of Detroit supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. “Today’s facilities are high tech, clean, efficient and full of technology and innovation.”

To help bridge that gap, American Axle on Monday announced it will build a new advance technology center that will, among other thing, help train workers.

“We are moving into an age of intelligent manufacturing where machines are connected to facilities and fleets that are then connected to networks,” Dauch said.

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