NORWOOD, Ohio -- Youngstown was all the talk in this small town near Cincinnati Wednesday, as a forum hosted by Siemens Corp. and The Atlantic magazine focused on how technology is altering manufacturing and driving its future.
The Mahoning Valley's transformation into a leading laboratory for advanced manufacturing proved a consistent theme throughout the program, helped along by two of the region's most vocal ambassadors, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13, and Mike Garvey, president of M-7 Technologies in Youngstown.
Garvey and Ryan were among panelists from private industry, labor, government and academia who were asked to participate in The Atlantic's "Building the Future: Manufacturing Software Revolution," held at Siemens Corp.'s Norwood motor manufacturing plant here.
The plant, constructed in 1898 and one of Siemens' oldest facilities, was selected because it exemplifies how technology has transformed production methods in what would traditionally be considered an obsolete site.
But it was Youngstown's story that figured most prominently in the discussion.
"There's something magical going on," observed Steve Clemons, editor-at-large of The Atlantic, referencing Youngstown's mention in two of President Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses, as he directed an initial question to Garvey.
"About 30 years ago, we had our Katrina event," Garvey said, referring to the steel shutdowns of the 1970s and 1980s. "We had a mass emigration of money and talent. It was more than a gut punch, and it took everything in our power to get up off the mat."
It's Youngstown's tradition of production and manufacturing that helped it get back up and "answer the bell," Garvey said. "In Youngstown, we recognized 15 years ago that software was going to be the leading skill set in a technology-based economic development plan."
In May, Siemens Corp. provided $440 million of in-kind support and software to Youngstown State University to help develop curricula geared toward training students and faculty on new technology related to advanced manufacturing. In August 2012, Youngstown was selected as the site for the country's first advanced manufacturing hub, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, now branded as "America Makes."
Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemens Corp. USA and also a native of Poland, Ohio, recalled how Youngstown was the second-largest steel producer in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.
"Both my grandfathers worked in the steel mills," he said. "These were pretty gritty factories. It was pretty tough work."
But times have changed, and it's no longer "my grandfather's manufacturing," Spiegel said. "Today, these steel mills have state-of-the art computer design, robots – it's a totally different world."
Software has transformed the whole manufacturing process, Spiegel continued. "It's replaced mass production assembly lines and really getting rid of the dirty, dangerous work we all think of as associated with manufacturing."
The software revolution in industry isn't just going to help companies manufacture advanced products, but will also help "manufacture a new middle class for this country," Spiegel observed.
Creating a knowledge-based workforce steeped in understanding technology was largely behind Siemens' partnership with YSU, he said.
Ryan called Siemens' investment at YSU " huge. It put a seal of approval on what was happening" in the Mahoning Valley.
The congressman, a member of the House of Representatives manufacturing caucus, closed out the event with a one-on-one conversation with The Atlantic's Clemons.
Ryan said that he's beginning to see a positive trend emerging as he works with the manufacturing caucus, citing America Makes and Vallourec Star's new $1 billion steel mill in Youngstown.
Among the greatest challenges facing the caucus, Ryan said, is dispelling the stigma of manufacturing as low-wage, dirty, and dangerous work. "You can eat off the floor in these facilities. These are not the manufacturing facilities that used to be in Youngstown or Akron."
Getting kids interested in building and manufacturing can start at a very early age, Ryan said. "It starts with Legos in the elementary schools, robotics in high schools," he explained. Equipment such as 3-D printers installed in schools could also help encourage a new generation of engineers and builders.
Ryan said he envisions building a regional research triangle fueled by public-private investment that would create a cluster of advanced manufacturing interests and workforce development initiatives.
"The next step is to further the collaboration with research and development with some type of private park where you can build out continuing research and expedite commercialization," the congressman concluded.
MORE on today’s Daily BUZZ webcast and in the March edition of The Business Journal, published next week.
Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
CLICK HERE to subscribe to our twice-monthly print edition and to our free daily email.