Big M Event Looks at Future of Manufacturing, Industrial Security

The Big M conference returns to Detroit today to take a deep dive into the future of manufacturing and how it intersects with new technologies—the cloud, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and wearable devices, for instance—to shape what’s to come.

Michigan, of course, has long been a manufacturing powerhouse. According to the Big M’s host, SME (formerly called the Society of Mechanical Engineers), the Great Lakes region has a $4.7 trillion economy—if it was a country, it would have the fourth largest economy in the world. The region produces $461 billion worth of manufactured goods annually, and it’s the nation’s top exporter to both Canada and Mexico.

Manufacturers are interested in new technologies primarily because they’re poised to save them a lot of time and money, and are tied to future economic growth. Christine Longroy, event manager for the Big M, said the conference attendees have a combined purchasing power of $5 billion; according to an SME report published in March on the opportunities in advanced manufacturing, more than half of manufacturing leaders plan to invest in new technologies in the next two years. That represents a huge opportunity for startups in Michigan and beyond that are developing manufacturing applications for new technology in areas like the Internet of Things (IoT), and they stand to make a lot of money if they can deliver the savings manufacturers are seeking.

The event brings startups, manufacturers, and experts “together to learn where the industry can take the technology,” Longroy said. “It allows startups to collaborate, develop partnerships, and find their opportunities.”

In the modern factory, for instance, machines are equipped with lots of sensors recording tons of data. Innovations in IoT mean that the data collected by these sensors can now be mined and used for quality control or to improve operations. In the old days, if a piece of factory equipment broke down, the entire line was shut down so the mishap could be investigated—a very costly process. Now, a manufacturer can use sensor data to find out what happened relatively quickly..

Eric Coseman is a Dow retiree and owner of OIT Concepts, a Midland, MI-based consultancy that helps manufacturers design and implement new technologies. He spoke at last year’s Big M conference and said that before manufacturers implement these new technologies, they need to understand what’s at risk when they move their operations online.

When it comes to industrial systems, Coseman said in a recent interview, most plants are designed and operated to mitigate possible negative consequences, whether they’re caused by a cyber attack or other means.

“It’s a huge area of concern and growing,” Coseman said, adding that Israeli startups and, to a lesser extent, U.S. startups are beginning to develop products to guard industrial IT operations. “It’s a red-hot area for new technologies and professional career opportunities. There’s a critical shortage of talent—there are very few people globally with the necessary expertise. I don’t see why Michigan wouldn’t have a big opportunity here.”

Coseman, who spent 38 years at Dow before retiring last year, said he’s spent the bulk of his career working at the intersection of IT and industrial manufacturing and has been “heavily involved” in cybersecurity as it relates to the chemical industry and the U.S. IT infrastructure. He cited the 2013 cyber attack on an Iranian uranium enrichment facility as an example of what’s at stake.

Stuxnet, a piece of malware thought to be created by Israeli and U.S. intelligence forces, was unleashed on the Iranian nuclear facility through an employee’s thumb drive; it was meant to knock the operation offline and cause confusion. Stuxnet reportedly ended up destroying one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges by causing them to spin out of control. The mission was considered a success, and though neither U.S. or Israeli officials will speak about it on the record, it was one of the most sophisticated cyber attacks ever deployed.

However, the Stuxnet incident revealed something else: that the power grid in the … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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