The 2019 Manufacturing Matters conference brought together the state’s manufacturing sector for two days of networking and learning, with an action-focused theme of “Make It Happen.” But another key theme of the event was the need to embrace change and not simply keep doing what the company and the industry have always done.

Keynote speaker Dr. Bill Mitchell, president and CEO of Aguila (a Foxconn company), described how the Foxconn project in Wisconsin has been “like building the airplane while we’re flying—and we’re redesigning it.”

Along the way, he said he has learned once again an important lesson he’s come back to many times in his career—the necessity of not just keeping up with change, but actively engaging with it to set yourself apart from the competition.

“The rate of change is continuing to increase exponentially,” he said. “What’s holding so many companies back is they’re holding onto something and they’re afraid to let it go.”

Governor Tony Evers spoke about plans to transform the state’s education system, broadband network and roads so businesses will have the infrastructure and talent they need to innovate.

“Wisconsin’s manufacturers are a driving force behind many of our state’s economic development successes,” Evers said, and invited the audience to play an active role in future economic growth and his administration’s initiatives: “If we truly care about making our state strong, I will need your help.”

The Manufacturing Matters conference, held Feb. 20-21 in Milwaukee, included dozens of breakout sessions and workshops on topics of relevance to manufacturers, as well as a breakfast speaker and networking receptions. The event was hosted by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), with WEDC as one of the sponsors.

Robots and humans side by side

In a strategic briefing session hosted by Neff Automation, Joe Campbell of Universal Robots Americas showcased some recent changes in robotics that have made it safer for humans and robots to work in close proximity. When once it was considered too dangerous due to the risk of injury, robots today are lighter and have better safety mechanisms, and are specifically designed to work side by side with humans.

Campbell noted that outdated perceptions of the impact of robots have been disproven. Rather than replacing humans, he said, robots often allow for additional hiring when they are added into the workplace, and these hires are higher-value assignments that are more appealing to workers, especially millennials. He said companies should think about adding robots not to replace employees, but to allow the company to expand its capacity and take on bigger and more competitive projects.

Exports as an engine for growth

In “Best Practices to Sustain Export Momentum,” executives from Bradley Corporation of Germantown and Gamber-Johnson of Stevens Point shared how their companies have grown their exports—a process that inherently requires embracing change, as international trade trends constantly shift.

Roxanne Baumann, director of global engagement for WMEP, spoke about the resources offered by the U.S. Commercial Service and WEDC, as well as her own organization, to help companies develop an export strategy and address all the factors that need to be considered when entering a new market: labeling, packaging, logistics, regulatory requirements, payment terms, documentation, customs and more.

“Once companies learn the process, they can pivot” and apply the same principles to additional new markets, Baumann said.

Happier employees, higher productivity

In “Transforming Softly for High-Impact Results,” executives of JARP Industries, a Schofield-based maker of hydraulic cylinders, described the culture change that has taken place at the company over the last two years and the role it has played in talent attraction and retention.

At one time the company couldn’t find people to fill open jobs, and the employees it did have were becoming increasingly disgruntled since they were being required to work mandatory overtime to keep up with growing production demands. The company was turning away new business because it was having trouble completing its existing orders on time.

Starting in early 2017, under the guidance of a new CEO, the company set out to transform itself into an employer of choice. Management did away with mandatory overtime and shut down the production lines for hours at a time to hold listening sessions with employees, moves that seemed counterintuitive given how busy everyone was. But, said Hans-Wilhelm Helsinger, director of planning and technology, “we were so stuck rowing our boats as hard as we could that we couldn’t see the big picture.”

It took time to build trust, but when employees started to see that managers were actually listening in those sessions and implementing what was suggested, more of them began to speak up and offer ideas.

At the same time, managers implemented an open-door policy and started dressing in the same uniform as workers on the shop floor. They would take daily walks around the production floor and engage with employees, asking what they could do to make people’s jobs easier, then listening and taking action—including jumping on a production line to help out if needed.

A focus on personal development and creation of new opportunities for advancement within the workplace—such as designating team leads and shift leads and empowering them to make decisions—further helped position the company as a place where people felt valued, engaged and enthusiastic about working, rather than just showing up to collect a paycheck.

The company has raised its on-time delivery rate from 28 percent in 2016 to 85 percent in 2018. Productivity has actually improved, in spite of production lines operating for fewer hours per week, and the company has been able to expand and take on new orders.

The most telling sign of how people felt about the workplace prior to all these changes, Helsinger said: nobody would come to the company holiday party—even with free food and drinks.

Today, he said, the company is able to attract new hires who had higher-paying offers elsewhere but have been drawn in by JARP’s reputation for being an enjoyable and rewarding place to work.

Iain Cameron, the company’s director of operations, said people have come up to him in public when he was wearing company logo wear and say, “You work for JARP? Got any jobs?”

Added Helsinger: “That never would have happened two years ago.”