5Qs: Tom Kelly, Executive Director of Automation Alley, on Industry 4.0

Published September 2016, dbusiness.com.
Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly, the recently appointed executive director of Troy-based Automation Alley, a nonprofit technology business accelerator, has years of technology and manufacturing experience. DBusiness Daily News spoke with Kelly on emerging technology, his goals for Automation Alley, and how he plans to help the organization’s southeast Michigan members succeed. Prior to his new role, Kelly served as Automation Alley’s COO and director of entrepreneurship.

DDN: What are your goals as executive director at Automation Alley?   

We are launching this new initiative, which we call Industry 4.0, and that’s a term that Germany coined back in 2011 to promote their strategy around the digitization and computerization of manufacturing. We’re taking that term and applying it to the technologies that are really going to shape manufacturing. By those technologies, I’m talking about autonomous robots, modeling and simulation, the industrial internet of things, cyber security, the cloud, and 3D printing. For a smaller to medium manufacturer, all these technologies are coming at once, and it can be extremely disruptive. So Automation Alley sees our purpose as helping small and medium manufacturers make sense of this coming world and helping them navigate this disruption as its going to occur, because it is going to happen. What (I’m) doing now with this role, versus my job before as COO, is to take us to the next level.

DDN: How have your previous experiences helped you transition into your new position? 

I think everything I’ve done leading to this point was to prepare me to take over this role as executive director of Automation Alley. I started my career as an electrical engineer, selling factory automation and robotics to industry in southeast Michigan. So I was able to crawl through all the plants that we’re talking about today back when the third industrial revolution was in full steam, which was the computerization of manufacturing and the initial use of robotics. I’ve always had a connection to both technology and manufacturing. I think my past experiences have prepared me extremely well to help lead the vision on how we’re going to pull (Industry 4.0) off, and how we’re going to keep southeast Michigan relevant as the world changes around us very quickly.

DDN: How can Automation Alley assist its members in finding more opportunities in the global marketplace, and how can overseas businesses better reach members? 

We bring a lot of value to our members and one of those pillars is our international business services group. We run two to three trade missions a year all over the world. We take about eight to 10 local small to medium size businesses, many of them are manufactures and in some cases all of them are manufacturers when we go on a trade mission, and we help them understand how to do business in the countries that we’re visiting, and we actually play matchmaker and help them have great conversations with companies that want to use their product or service. Over the last 10 or 12 years, we’ve helped generate over half a billion dollars of new contracts for our small and medium companies that we’ve taken on these trade missions. Of course, the flip side of that is we also help businesses that may be in other countries get established in southeast Michigan. We have what’s called a soft landing center, and we’ll assist them with getting over to southeast Michigan, give them office space, they can stay with us for 90 days, even longer if they need to, and we help them get connected with the ecosystem here in southeast Michigan. We help them generate business.

We go to Europe quite a bit, and we’re going to France next year. We went to Germany this year. We got to Mexico quite a bit, because as you can imagine, with the auto industry there’s quite a bit of trade that is occurring with Mexico right now. We’ve been to China. We’re going to Cuba on an exploratory mission. Because as Cuba opens up and the U.S. government allows us to trade with Cuba, there’s a lot of interest among our members in southeast Michigan to begin to explore what that’s going to look like.

DDN: As new technologies continue to emerge, how would you like to see Automation Alley evolve? 

Automation alley needs to be relevant and needs to always be ahead of where our members are in terms of their technology needs, strategic needs, what they’re thinking about as companies, how they’re going to deploy capital, (and) how they’re going to find talent. As Industry 4.0 evolves, and as these technologies come into play, Automation Alley needs to stay on the cutting edge of what these technologies are going to mean for our members. We see Automation Alley as continually evolving to serve the needs of our members around technology and industry. Whatever those needs are, we will try to be a good resource for our members.

We talk to our members both big and small, and we spend a lot of time researching what is happening out in the world, not just what is happening in southeast Michigan. Our job is to take knowledge and then bring it down to a level where our small and medium members can actually understand and act upon where the world is going.

DDN: What new initiatives or projects is Automation Alley working on, and how will they assist the organization with its overall mission of enhancing the global competitiveness of southeast Michigan and advancing the region as a high-tech powerhouse? 

Industry 4.0 is obviously our biggest initiative that we’re going to be embarking on over the next couple of years. It’s a huge elephant. But with that said, we have other initiatives that are going to play into this overarching theme of Industry 4.0. We need to bring technology into our physical location here in Troy, so our members can get exposed to it. We’re investigating putting in a virtually reality lab on site so our members can see what’s happening with virtual reality in relation to industry. We’re thinking of putting in a sensor and industrial internet of things demonstration center, so we can show our members how that works. We’re thinking of figuring out a way to record our committee sessions, our lunch and learns, and our seminars in our atrium so members and non-members can consume that knowledge without physically having to be here.

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