A white office building stands next to a brick tower in Detroit. The brick building has edges terraced the width of one brick, fuzzy with distance, colors ranging from red to sunset yellow. A white walkway flings out from the plainer building, reaching like an arm toward the brick and held on by pins of white tile. It’s a meeting of modern and classic, a parasitic or symbiotic thread thrown out above the People Mover. Detroit often seems to be reaching out an arm to its own past.
I traveled to Motor City this week with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which in partnership with Development Counsellors International is trying to shift the image of Detroit from a recession-wracked automotive hub to a new and developing home for advanced manufacturing. In many regards, the companies we toured were emblematic of Detroit’s tech revival. 3D printer maker Electrical Optical Systems (EOS) supplies the machines that build the parts at companies like Roush. Virtual reality marketing company Wedoo provides virtual builds for customers purchasing a vehicle from car companies like Fiat.
Executives that weathered the recession in any form sang a common refrain: they pivoted away from automotive, diversified their offerings, and followed their customers into new product areas. Roush, known for high-performance auto parts, survived the recession partially by diversifying: they also work on theme park rides.
With the MEDC at the helm, the tour was focused on companies that benefitted from assistance. State and county support is making it easier for companies to find office and shop space in Michigan. Kylee Guenther of Spectalite, an up-and-coming company which mixes plastic with bamboo, explained that she moved back to Michigan from Ohio in part because of assistance from business development conglomerate Automation Alley.
Automation Alley connects advanced manufacturing and automotive companies with one another and with government support, including hosting international business owners and providing them living space with the intent for them to open facilities in Michigan. Now, some companies find that the hardest part of running a factory in Michigan is to employ people to work in it. Fori Automation Vice President of Sales Paul Meloche explained that growth after the recession stagnated because HR could not find enough skilled workers to hire in order to expand operations.
Another industry organization, The Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), trains automakers working in new materials utilized by light weighting research and education facility Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT). IACMI and LIFT share shop space. The IACMI partners with Michigan State University, other institutes, and local high schools in terms of offering internships and shop tours. In just a few months IACMI and LIFT plan to start construction of a learning center where students can gain experience on real-world machines in a shop environment, with the idea of moving them directly into the workforce after school.
Over the next few weeks, Manufacturing.net will have more coverage of the companies I visited and met with on the tour, including Baker Industries and EOS, a 3D printer manufacturer.