May 22, 2017

For manufacturing organizations to survive in the 21st century, they don’t just require advanced technology—they need visionary leaders to help them enter the digital age.

It’s fitting, then, that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) held its 2017 Alumni Conference last week at UI LABS, where work is underway to develop digital technologies to make U.S. manufacturing more competitive. Speakers at the conference included MIT LGO alumni who’ve founded cutting-edge young companies, like Fast Radius and Rethink Robotics, along with those innovating within large industrial organizations like Caterpillar.

“What are the limits to the disruption happening right before our eyes?” asked Rick Smith, speaking on the conference’s first day. The company he co-founded, Fast Radius, helps businesses manage the design, engineering, prototyping, and production of end-use parts using the latest digital technologies, including additive manufacturing.

Smith and other speakers explored how 3D printing, cobots—robots that work side by side with human employees—and improved use of data are transforming manufacturing, an industry that’s been comparatively slow to adapt to newly available technology. Consumer-facing companies like Uber and Amazon have harnessed data at a faster rate than manufacturers, said Lou Rassey, Smith’s co-founder at Fast Radius, even though the industry generates more data than any other.

MIT Alumni talk Digital Transformation at UI LABS.
Manufacturing Operations Associate Larry Preston demonstrates augmented reality technology from Scope AR on the DMDII manufacturing floor for the LGO alumni. (Photo by Barry Brecheisen)

“The question we should be asking is, ‘How is data going to unlock new sources of value in my business?’” Rassey said. “The transfer of data is creating value for companies. The same opportunity exists in manufacturing.”

Denise Johnson, Group President at Caterpillar, shed light on how the industrial giant is incorporating new technologies into its product line to improve its offerings to customers.

“Digital really has changed how we do business,” Johnson said.

Caterpillar is using autonomous vehicles—which it began developing in the 1980s—along with other solutions like Cat Detect, whose systems can respond to signs of worker fatigue to prevent accidents. The company has also partnered with Velodyne Acoustics’ LiDAR division, a laser-imaging technology provider, to apply its technology on mining, construction, and other sites. The system uses lasers to calculate distance to improve efficiency and safety, such as preventing run-ins with wildlife, a common source of accidents, Johnson said.

One-hundred twenty MIT LGO alumni from 27 states and three countries attended the two-day event at the UI LABS Innovation Center on Chicago’s Goose Island. Students enrolled in the MIT LGO program earn an MBA and a Master’s degree in engineering in two years.

Fast Radius’ Smith underscored the rapid pace of change occurring in technology, but framed the disruption as an opportunity for LGO alumni.

“The goal of a leader is to not be surprised by these developments. The goal is to anticipate the future and successfully write yourself into that future,” he said.