Written by Patrick Gregg and Mary C. Dillon
A West Virginia University study has found that the Mountain State will see a brighter picture for its manufacturing industry in the near future, but that many manufacturers in West Virginia need to adapt to Smart Manufacturing to help make industry more efficient and profitable.
The study, titled “Overview of Smart Manufacturing in West Virginia,” is a collaborative effort by the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the College of Business and Economics at WVU.
Smart Manufacturing, also commonly referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, is a data-intensive application of information and operational technology at the shop floor level and beyond to enable intelligent, efficient and responsive manufacturing and supply chain operations. Based on the principles of connectivity, virtualization and data utilization, it marries technology, data and human ingenuity.
“Our study shows that while as many as 60 percent of participating manufacturers in the state have heard of Smart Manufacturing, just one-fifth are actively working on it,” said Thorsten Wuest, J. Wayne and Kathy Richards Faculty Fellow in Engineering and assistant professor in the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering. “While larger manufacturers such as Toyota, Hino Motors and Procter & Gamble have most likely started their Smart Manufacturing journey, many small- and medium-sized manufacturers are struggling to overcome the initial barriers.
“Before coming to WVU, Patrick Schmid, a graduate student in industrial engineering who worked on the study, was involved in a similar survey of Industry 4.0 adoption in Germany’s automotive industry,” Wuest continued. “While we did expect some of the outcomes we saw in our survey, the one result that surprised us in a positive way was the companies’ encouraging attitudes toward Smart Manufacturing. While most struggle to identify specific value-adding Smart Manufacturing applications within their operation, they were very interested in learning more and applying that newly gained knowledge to create sustainable solutions for their business.”
Access to available resources – both financial and technical – can also cause companies to struggle with the adoption of new technologies.
“Our recommendations for addressing this gap are to provide information/training for industrial partners and to develop Smart Manufacturing curricula for professionals and engineering students,” Wuest continued. “We need to communicate successes broadly and form mutually beneficial, long-term partnerships in addition to developing small-scale ‘lighthouse’ projects together with better leveraging state and federal funding for these collaborative project opportunities.”
Brian Lego, research assistant professor at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the manufacturing industry has seen a significant downturn in recent history, but that upturns in sectors such as automobile, auto parts, aerospace, chemicals and natural gas have resulted in a much-improved environment.
“The next several years will be a period of improvement. It’s no secret that the manufacturing sector has seen significant losses,” Lego said. “Going forward, due in part to the outgrowth of the natural gas industry, manufacturing will have firmer footing in terms of growth and output.”
He said West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle region would likely see increased competition for natural gas jobs and increased usage levels as the result of a natural gas cracker facility being built in Pennsylvania. Substantial additions of jobs and capacity at Toyota and Hino are also positive signs, he said, as is a recent announcement by Procter & Gamble that its Eastern Panhandle facility would be considerably expanded beyond its original plans.
“The employment capacity will be higher than what was originally announced, which will have a much larger impact for P&G,” said Lego. “And that is certainly good for West Virginia.”
Looking five years down the road and beyond, Lego said he anticipated seeing a far more positive industry.
“Manufacturing is going to be in a better position than it has been in the recent past. Some portions of this industry will continue to struggle,” he said, “but we have several examples of potential manufacturing growth.”