Shawn Wright| Crain’s Custom Media

Innovation comes in a nonlinear way for Nigel Francis.

It’s about putting a group of smart people in a room together, bouncing ideas off one another and devising a solution.

With at least 5,000 attendees expected to discuss and showcase Michigan’s manufacturing future at the inaugural Big M event this week at Cobo Center, it’s no wonder that Francis, senior vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s automotive office – sometimes called the state’s “car czar” – was on-hand and front and center to take in the conference.

The Big M, brainchild of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, tackled such issues as the talent and skills gap, sustainability, globalization and the necessity for innovation. For Francis, these manufacturing challenges and others are at the forefront of his mission to push and maintain Michigan’s global competitiveness.

Francis sat down with Shawn Wright, of Crain’s Custom Media, at the Big M event to offer some perspectives on the conference, Southeast Michigan’s recent inclusion in President Obama’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership program, and training and recruiting skilled trades workers, among others.

What’s your take on the Big M event?

The Big M is this convergence and confluence of manufacturing technologies and people. We’re really grateful for the people at SME for conceiving of the Big M event and bringing it to Detroit and Michigan. The fact they did that, all on their own volition, is a testament that we are the center of the manufacturing universe. And we’re certainly the center of the automotive industry.

It’s a new event and they’ve done a stunning job of bringing this together. All credit to them for doing it. We’ve (the MEDC) had a small part to play in helping them, along with a bunch of others in academia and industry. This has been about Michigan jumping in the canoe, everybody grabbing a paddle and paddling together. This is what Detroit can do.

Who have you been talking to at the Big M event?

I met with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and others. We were lucky to have her open the Big M (as a keynote speaker). While she was here, she met with state, academic and industrial leaders in Michigan. I basically said, “Look, Secretary, in front of you have (these three entities: academia, industry and government) all working together toward one common end. This is ‘Team Michigan’; this is the way we play. We’re ready, organized, have a plan, all working together and shovel-ready.”

What’s been catching your eye at the event?

On the conference floor it’s highly dynamic, which is great. There’s lots of movement and lots of people going around. They’re not just looking; they’re participating.

If you go to a car show, for example, it’s a place where people go to show their product. The Big M, for me, is slightly different. Yes, people are showing their product. But, actually, they’re standing in the corridors collaborating, discussing. Those discussions will create our future.

Were there any particular discussions that caught your attention?

I got in a very interesting discussion with someone in 3D printing of electronics. I don’t know how viable it is, maybe it’s being done. I don’t think it is. But now that 3D printing is up and running, it needs to evolve. It’s going to evolve in different directions.

And that’s the main point of this conference: If it’s here and it’s the people in Michigan predominantly talking about these things, then the evolution of 3D printing will happen in Michigan. We need to have our finger on the pulse, all the time, going forward. We have to be in front of the change, not behind it. If you’re behind the change, you’re playing catch-up to somebody else. If you’re in front, you’re in a much more comfortable position. It takes hard work to get there. But once you’re there, as long as you keep your foot on the gas, you’re in much better shape.

What’s your view on the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership?

We all worked together to create one common front from the state of Michigan, one proposal, and we got supported by the federal government. And why did we get supported? Because we’re better at it and we’ve got more to offer than anybody else. We’ve brought industry, academia and state government together to reach out to the federal government in a coordinated way. And the end result is the IMCP.

You mention the three entities working together. What’s the change you’ve seen?

I’ve been around to a lot of academia and asked them to cooperate with industry, so that they can produce the product of the future that industry will want to buy – the people with the right skills.

They know; they get it. By definition, they’re not stupid. They’re academia. They just needed a bit of a helping hand to say, “Hey, look, this is a business. The more relevant your product is, the more people you’re going to be putting through, so the bigger your business gets.”

Everybody told me academia would not cooperate. Let me tell you, they’ve been highly cooperative. Somebody just needed to give them some leadership.

What and how are we doing in training and recruiting skilled trades workers?

There are a number of initiatives that are ongoing throughout the state. The biggest one is Michigan Advanced Technician Training, or MAT2. It’s intended to fit in between a two-year community college and a four-year degree. It’s community college-driven with some certification on top. The initial indications are that it’s highly successful and filling a gap.

What we now need to do is scale that. There are other initiatives and actions going on. However, it would be fair to say that we need to find more money to make them more scalable. We do have a growing gap. But be very careful how you interpret that. We need to understand what that gap is. (And) we know enough about where that gap is to start taking some action.

Recently, we’ve started a study in which we define this gap as we go into the future. Specifically, what types of engineers, technicians, and how many and when are needed. Once we’ve got that, we can analyze if we can fill the positions. And then if we can’t, we’ll know what specific actions we need to take.

How has talent improved or changed?

The industry is constantly moving and evolving, faster and faster. When I started my career, I was a mechanical engineer. During my career, I’ve been responsible for electric vehicle and lightweighting work. I’ve had to learn, on the job, electrical and chemical engineering to add to my mechanical engineering. And that’s been over a 30-year time frame.

I think we should expect the same to happen, but over a 10-year period as we go forward. It would not surprise me to see an automotive industry where you have to retrain yourself five or six times during a 20- to 25-year career, rather than once. The fundamental technologies that drive the industry are evolving faster and faster. But retraining is going to be important for them.

How will Michigan’s business climate play a role in the U.S. maintaining competitiveness in a global market?

There’s a large number of players in advanced manufacturing and engineering in Michigan. I am trying to get them all working together, but also keep them focused on the future. It’s not sufficient for the state if these great companies are focused on today. They need to be focused on the future.

A great company that’s focused on today will not be a great company of the future. They know that. I don’t need to tell them that, but maybe I just need to remind them. That’s part of my mission.

What we have to understand is that we have global competition. This isn’t about Michigan versus another state; it’s about Michigan versus the rest of the world. It’s the automotive industry and fully globalized. And those major dollars to help fund this effort are going to have to come from the federal government.

We are the manufacturing base for the U.S. Anybody who thinks that strong manufacturing is not important to an economy … well, you can give them my phone number.


Share On