Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Cynthia Hutchison, Advanced Manufacturing Expert

Cynthia Hutchison is CEO of The U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing. Her job is to direct programming that aims to help shape the global agenda on the future of production and strengthen the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector in the U.S. Immediately prior to her current position, Hutchison completed a 12-month World Economic Forum Fellowship in the U.S. and at the Forum’s Switzerland headquarters, managing the development of the Forum’s Global Network of Advanced Manufacturing Hubs. The fellowship was awarded based on Hutchison’s achievements as the Vice President of Automation Alley, a Michigan-based non-profit technology business association and Digital Transformation Insight Center focused on driving the growth and success of businesses in  innovation and automation. With Hutchison’s support, Automation Alley’s refocused its efforts to become a globally recognized industry 4.0 knowledge center. Hutchison recently talked to The Innovator about the evolution of advanced manufacturing.

Q: The rapid pace of technological change, coupled with geopolitical, climate and supply chain disruptions, has created an urgency for manufacturers across the globe to adopt advanced manufacturing technologies and practices to remain agile and competitive. Yet as many as 70% of pilots using advanced technologies fail. Why is that?

CH: There has never been a more critical time in manufacturing, and we will pay the price if we don’t capture it. People in the U.S. talk about wanting to bring manufacturing back, but our role is to bring cross industry collaborations together to address the many complexities of re-shoring. This is the moment to wrestle with how to make near shoring a reality. However, Covid is still fresh in mind, and we are dealing with continued disruptions from the Ukraine conflict. We need to remember how we came together during Covid when supply chains were disrupted, and downstream participants helped each other. Manufacturing near the end-user is good for the environment and good for local economies. We need to do more of that. We will become greener, faster and make one another successful by collaborating, staying culturally open-minded and adopting advanced technologies.

There is a lot of intrigue, concern and insecurity around AI right now. My advice is to be inventive. Look at AI, study how you might use it and develop side projects.  Success with AI, or other advanced technologies, depends on choosing the right pilot with the ideal department. Often that group is most willing to pivot and see the opportunity stemming from innovation. It is tempting to begin in the parts of the company with the most challenges to see a quick ROI.

It’s important to remember technology does not live in isolation; it supports existing infrastructure, teams and culture. I look at the 70% failure rate of tech pilots through that holistic lens. Pilots that do not address these underlying issues are less likely to succeed. When in the development stage, pilots need to identify the ways in which new technology must overlay legacy equipment and the existing workforce. When these things are considered, the likelihood of success increases.

Q: The U.S. Center for Advanced Manufacturing is focused on ways to increase productivity,  become more sustainable and build supply chain resilience. What have you learned about what works and what doesn’t?

CH: I think one of the most important takeaways is how quickly and dramatically things change with data. After all, data is at the heart of unleashing gains in efficiency, repeatability, scale and control. Manufacturers must be able to smartly and quickly analyze all the data generated and break down disparate data sets generated from new equipment, materials and processes. Take the case of something as simple as 3D printing. Applied correctly, data analytics in the 3D printing environment can reduce downtime and scrap waste.

Q: Transformation is tough for large manufacturers. It is even tougher for small and medium sized manufacturers. What’s the best way to engage the workforce?

CH: In the U.S. Center’s work with the World Economic Forum, we facilitated a series of extensive interviews with both manufacturing executives and factory floor workers. When employees know why they are doing what they do, they do their jobs much better. Additionally, when people understand how the system all comes together there is less resistance to change. It also helps when you give them some control over the process they are going to use. For example, asking employees to choose whether it makes more sense for them to use an iPad or some other interface. Tenure plays a role as well: Employees that have been there for a while have some expertise and are proud of their knowledge. No factory can wave a wand and find dozens of top people with engineering degrees, so it pays to make the most of existing employees. Before designing a new approach, bring it to the factory floor and say: ‘We need to change, here’s why. Tell me how we should do it.’ It is naïve to think that companies learn everything from people they recruit from universities. The people who do things understand the workflow and know where the actual bottlenecks are. Involve them in the process. If you change things without explanation, hand them VR glasses and tell them to work differently, you are more likely to meet resistance.

Q: While connectivity inside factories helps companies collect important data it also exposes them to increased cyber risks. How are you advising manufacturers to manage risk?

CH: Advanced manufacturing exposes smaller companies that don’t have a cyber plan in place. Nearly everything they do to be more digitally effective has a cyber risk trade-off. If they don’t have a plan in place they will be in jeopardy. While large corporations have a cyber team, small companies are unlikely to employ cyber experts and they don’t know what they don’t know. The US Center recently applied for and received a grant to continually encourage small and medium sized companies to embrace cyber secure connectivity for productivity increases, sustainability increases and dataset increases. We also developed a one-page check-list for SMEs. Just like in Fortune 500 companies, one person has to own cybersecurity, and companies need to define the five most critical actions to take if they come under attack. We are trying to make sure we downscale what big companies are doing for the SMEs. Although we work with larger companies, one of the key objectives of the major roles of the US Center is to recognize the need for and value of the SME community and ensure that their voice is heard. These smaller businesses are the lifeblood of most economies. Part of what we do is to organize roundtables that include multinational, academic, SME and government participants. The idea is to aggregate these voices, carry them back to the Forum and share our learnings with other Fourth Industrial Revolution Centres around the world and explore how we can work better together.

Q: You were a speaker at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting Of The New Champions. In Tianjin, China. What did you learn while there?

CH: Tianjin was fascinating. Creative and entrepreneurial people from all over the globe were there. I was incredibly impressed with the level of innovation. Manufacturers are doing some really interesting things in countries like China, South Korea and Brazil. We need to pay attention, find people we like to work with and not be afraid to work across borders.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.