This article originally appeared in Crain's.
The simple addition of a robotic component to their CNC machine helped support a nearly 70 percent increase in revenue for this northern Macomb County-based business.
When Bob Devroy's automotive employer shuttered during the Great Recession, he and his wife Heidi decided to build their own business—one that would make them more self-reliant while creating stability and prosperity for their employees.
In 2007, working out of their garage, the Devroys launched Prosper-Tech Machine & Tool, a small machine shop providing precision machining and plastic injection tooling. The Devroys have not only grown their Richmond shop in the last 15 years, they've also diversified it, adding medical and aerospace companies to their automotive client base. They now operate out of a 10,000 square-foot facility with 10 employees.
“We started our own company because the recession took Bob's employer down," explained Heidi Devroy, who serves as Prosper-Tech’s CEO. "So that was a big driver for us to diversify, to make sure we're stable enough to withstand another recession.”
And a big part of the Devroys’ success is tied to embracing Industry 4.0 — the fourth, and current, phase of the industrial revolution. Industry 4.0 encompasses the integration of digital technologies into every aspect of the industrial process, from sensors and data collection to artificial intelligence and 3D printing.
Increased productivity = increased revenue
Heidi Devroy recalls attending a 2018 conference where she first encountered the robotic machining world. The Devroys were struggling with capacity; orders exceeded what they could accomplish on one shift, but adding a second shift was too costly. That's when she began to understand the potential for applying Industry 4.0 to benefit her small machine shop.
Heidi realized a robotic machine could increase efficiency enough to allow the company to meet its output needs. But the move was both a big mental shift and a substantial capital investment for the company.
"I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. I couldn't sleep for days," Heidi Devroy recalled. But after extensive research, the Devroys took the leap and installed a new robotic component to Prosper-Tech’s CNC machine. The system allows for continuous operation without operator intervention and has translated into increased productivity and shorter order fulfillment times.
Prosper-Tech experienced a 69 percent increase in revenue from 2017 to 2020, and the Devroys have been able to pass cost savings onto customers, increase sales volume and diversify into the medical and aerospace sectors.
The company has also invested in improving worker benefits each year. It's created a better experience for skilled workers, since the robotic system assumes many repetitive tasks, Heidi Devroy said. Freed up form repetitive tasks, workers can better focus their energy and talents on moving automation forward. That's been essential as the company competes to retain workers amid a shortage of skilled machinists.
“People think robots replace people, but they don’t – they just replace the boring part,” Heidi Devroy said. “I don't think anybody minds that they don't have to sit here and do repetitive tasks.”
Embracing cultural change
When Tom Kelly took the helm as executive director and CEO of Automation Alley in 2016, he saw an opportunity. Until that point, the regional nonprofit had functioned largely as a member-based industry networking organization dedicated to rebranding Southeast Michigan as a high-tech manufacturing hub. As an expert in Industry 4.0, Kelly understood the value of helping the region's manufacturing base fully embrace Industry 4.0.
“I knew we had to be much more responsive to what I saw as an existential threat for manufacturing, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of our economy — double that of any other state,” Kelly said. “We've got a lot of eggs in that basket.”
In 2019, Automation Alley, Michigan’s Industry 4.0 knowledge center, was approached by the World Economic Forum to jointly establish the Advanced Manufacturing Hub for Michigan (AMHUB), one of 12 such advanced production hubs globally. Automation Alley’s mission is to maintain a global perspective while equipping regional companies to become “Industry 4.0 ready.”
In 2021, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) partnered with Automation Alley to give the more than 12,000 manufacturing business in Michigan automatic membership to the organization and access to its resources as part of an effort to get 50% of the state’s small and mid-sized manufacturers ready to adopt Industry 4.0 technology by 2025. Automation Alley staff conduct leadership evaluations to determine where members rank in terms of Industry 4.0 readiness and refer those who are ready on to the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center for technical assessments, among other services.
So far, Kelly says the top insight gleaned from these evaluations is that Industry 4.0 readiness is a cultural challenge within the manufacturing sector.
"What we see time and time again is management struggling with how to change their culture, to allow people to move faster, to allow people to make mistakes," Kelly said.
Kelly points to Prosper-Tech as an example of how a small shop can overcome this culture barrier. “What we love about Prosper-Tech is that they will readily admit they were reluctant to invest in anything. And yet it's worked out beautifully,” he said.
The Devroys encourage other small shops to jump into the fray and not be intimidated. “We're learning because we don't want to be left behind,” Heidi Devroy said. "With so many shops, people get older and they just don't keep up with the technology. A lot of small shops don't even try to do automation."
The Devroys plan to continue to invest in automation at Prosper-Tech. They are looking into using sensor technology and artificial intelligence to improve machine maintenance. AI-enabled sensors could alert workers to machine issues more quickly, reducing the need for human monitoring and ultimately allowing the company to address problems early, avoid extended outages and reduce losses.
“Industry 4.0 seems like a big, scary word,” said Bob Devroy, Prosper-Tech’s president. “But it really isn't. You've just got to break it down into small pieces. Any kind of automation that makes the job easier is Industry 4.0."
For more information on how the MEDC can help your company realize the benefits of Industry 4.0, visit Michiganbusiness.org/Industry4-0.