Tech transforming the Midwest’s most important industries

Technology is transforming some of the Midwest’s most important industries, driving change in manufacturing and agriculture.

So said a panel of experts who spoke at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference yesterday in Madison on how these sectors and others are shaking things up in the Rust Belt.

Brian Waller, head of the Technology Association of Iowa, has seen manufacturers in his home state digitizing their manufacturing floors, hiring more IT specialists and emphasizing cybersecurity.

For example, Well’s Blue Bunny Ice Cream of La Mars, Iowa, is an ice cream manufacturer that now defines itself by its technology.

“They see themselves as a technology company,” Waller said. “They’ve harnessed business decisions with real-life data and dashboards… What you’re seeing is manufacturers thinking differently, they’re hiring differently.”

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s head of sector strategy development, Kelly Armstrong, notes that Wisconsin’s strengths lie in water tech, food and beverage, and aerospace and aviation.

“What we’re seeing across the board is an uptick in larger manufacturers that are making these investments,” she said, adding that is especially true with OEMs — original equipment manufacturers — that are pushing technological changes down through the supply chain.

“So even to be in the supply chain for an OEM you have to have these [technologies], and the number one thing is cybersecurity,” she said. “They don’t want you connecting into their system if the HR person is also your CIO.”

Tech Council President Tom Still says Foxconn’s arrival in Wisconsin “speaks a lot about the renaissance” in tech taking place in the upper Midwest. And Armstrong called the Foxconn development a catalyst to move manufacturing forward and prepare businesses for future industry expectations.

Waller says Iowa specializes in precision agriculture — an industry that, like manufacturing, is changing quickly due to technology innovation.

“If I’m in San Francisco, and they say ‘What is Iowa IT?’, I go: think ag tech. Think autonomous vehicles, think about precision agriculture, getting the most out of your yield,” he said.

As this multi-industry push toward greater use of technology advances, Armstrong envisions a lot more automation of tasks currently performed by humans.

“A plastic injection molding machine that’s out of plastic pellets is going to automatically reorder those pellets, and it does that with no human in the chain at all,” she said.

Even bidding from suppliers will be handled by automated systems, and eventually “they will probably be delivered by a drone, so you really have nobody doing this.”

Armstrong added: “If we can get manufacturing up to speed on IOT and Industry 4.0 and how all this works together… we can make sure we are ahead of the game.”

–By Alex Moe