Professional Development

Build from within: How this Arconic VP thinks traditional manufacturers can break into smart tech

VP of Technology and Engineering John Butler outlines how the Pittsburgh-headquartered company evolved on its own "smart journey."

Wide adoption of robots in manufacturing isn't here yet.

(Photo by Flicker user Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

What will it take for the traditional manufacturing companies of the US to adopt new technology?

This week, the Smart Manufacturing Experience — hosted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), CESMII, AMT and AMI — is taking place in Pittsburgh at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for three days of panels, networking and more centered on the adoption of smart manufacturing strategies. Hosted both online and in person, the conference convenes industry leaders and experts across new technology such as AI and machine learning, VR and AR, automation, cybersecurity and industrial IoT.

“Smart manufacturing is a vital initiative here in the US,” CESMII CEO John Dyck said at the start of Wednesday morning’s keynote address at the conference. “Digital transformation is being adopted at rates in Europe and in Asia [faster] than here in the US. So it’s vital for us here to engage, to understand, to accelerate our efforts in this space.”

Prior to the start of the conference this week, SME published a report detailing new market trends in smart manufacturing. One of the biggest takeaways in the data from respondents was that while the majority of small and medium manufacturers in the US are aware of the benefits smart manufacturing strategies can offer, only half are willing to make the necessary investments to achieve them. Outside of financial cost, respondents named a lack of executive talent as the biggest challenge in implementing smart manufacturing programs.

The keynote address that kicked off this week’s conference focused on that issue. In “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks: Smart Journey in a 125-Year-Old Company,” Pittsburgh-headquartered Arconic Corporation’s VP of technology and engineering, John Butler, shared his own company’s journey from its origins with 1888-founded Alcoa to its current status as a global leader in multi-material, precision-engineered aluminum products.

Below are some of the key takeaways from his address, which set the tone for the workshops and panels to follow over the next couple of days.

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Arconic uses a specific smart manufacturing strategy

Based on the ISA-95 framework — an international standard for the development of automation between enterprise and control systems — Butler outlined how different departments within Arconic operate at different levels of automation. But overall, the company’s three-step strategy in smart manufacturing encompasses:

  • Driving value through use cases and best practice sharing
  • Developing and retaining smart manufacturing talent within Arconic through the company’s smart manufacturing leadership training program
  • Creating corporate standards for smart manufacturing program deployment

Doing all of that, Butler said, enables Arconic to ensure that one implementation of smart manufacturing can be replicated in the future, ensuring the success of one application isn’t a singular event.

The overarching strategy can be customized for different departments

John Butler. (Photo via LinkedIn)

After outlining the general strategy Arconic uses for smart manufacturing, Butler gave examples of how it can be applied across departments like security, data analytics, talent development and operations software. For security, that strategy looks like hardware standardization and risk management, while applying the approach to operation software involves the modernization of tools and strategy sharing across teammates and other departments.

After outlining these general applications, Butler noted several specific examples of how Arconic is working with them, but made it clear that these principles work for any kind of manufacturing.

External partnerships and professional development can help fill the talent gap

Focusing in on the second step in Arconic’s smart manufacturing strategy — developing and retaining smart manufacturing talent — Butler spoke of the company’s work in partnering with top technical universities. Through those partnerships, he said, Arconic was able to establish a customized program for its employees, including one for practitioners and one for business leaders. So far, there have been three sessions of the program, with 41 people trained last year and a new batch of leaders and practitioners expected to go through the program later this year.

The leadership track provides training in the development of smart manufacturing strategies and hands-on demonstrations of smart manufacturing tools, while the practitioner track focuses on use of smart manufacturing systems and training on relevant tools. Both programs have a required project at the end. Leaders will have to present a five-year road map for their company location, while practitioners will demonstrate an implementation of a use case.

To hear the full presentation and others, find recordings of the Smart Manufacturing Experience conference here.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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