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There's a term being bandied around American business circles - Industry 4.0. That refers to the next Industrial Revolution. Many business leaders are concerned that American manufacturers will become less competitive if they don't hurry and embrace it. Jeff St. Clair of member station WKSU reports from one neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio.
JEFF ST CLAIR, BYLINE: It's widely considered that the first Industrial Revolution was steam power. Then came the production line. Next was robotic automation. And now smart technology and the Internet of things promise Industry 4.0. It's a tall order for small manufacturers.
DAN COLLINS: I mean, for gosh sakes, we just put wireless Internet in this facility about two years ago.
ST CLAIR: That's Dan Collins, who heads marketing at Wire Products Company, a medium-sized maker of springs, clips and car parts on Cleveland's West Side. Many of the machines humming here are from the 1950s. They twist long coils of metal into marketable products.
COLLINS: Although we're not connected to the Internet on our machines, we have done some things to existing equipment to enhance the productivity of the equipment - lasers, probes, electric eyes.
ST CLAIR: Ohio ranks third in the nation in manufacturing output. Cleveland is part of a National Science Foundation project looking at what it will take to bring small manufacturers and their employees into the Internet age.
Researcher Ken Loparo teaches electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve University. And he worries when small manufacturers tell him this.
KEN LOPARO: I know my competitor. It's Joe, you know, down the street three blocks. No, you don't. You have no clue. That was your competitor, but you don't know who your competitor's going to be tomorrow.
KEVIN MCDUNN: So the companies and countries that embrace these digitally empowered learning loops will subsume their competition.
ST CLAIR: That's Kevin McDunn, chief technology officer at UI LABS in Chicago, an industry think tank. He agrees it's all about competition and warns that other countries are already embracing Industry 4.0. He says by adding smart technology, sensors and artificial intelligence to older equipment, the U.S. could retain a competitive edge. But it's not just the machines. They're not the only things aging; so is America's workforce.
How long have you been here?
ROGER WENMOTH: Too long. Sixty-one years - 61 1/2.
ST CLAIR: Eighty-year-old Roger Wenmoth has been working on the Wire Products factory floor at the same machines since 1957. Dan Collins says Wenmoth is like family, but he recognizes the need to bring in a new generation of workers.
COLLINS: The way you're going to survive is bringing in that youth - that skilled youth set. And they're going to be so much more familiar with the Internet of things.
ST CLAIR: The Science Foundation project in Cleveland is meant to bring together manufacturers, researchers and the people who live in the neighborhood. And a new generation of tech-savvy workers is being trained just down the block from Wire Products. Krystle Rivera is community and business coordinator at John Marshall High School.
KRYSTLE RIVERA: We're the only school in the state of Ohio that has a computer science curriculum.
ST CLAIR: She says while many graduates do go to college, some will first head to local manufacturing jobs. And the ability of those companies to prosper depends in part on how quickly they embrace the next Industrial Revolution. For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair.
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