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Keeping Michigan on the Cutting Edge

(As published in Corp! Magazine, April 29, 2010)
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By Joseph Cabadas

With a well-deserved reputation as a center of heavy manufacturing, Michigan is perhaps less known as being well-equipped to prosper in the new economy powered by science and technology.

Corp! acknowledged cutting-edge companies with headquarters or a strong presence in the state at its inaugural Business of Science and Technology Awards breakfast on April 20, 2010.

Fifty-seven organizations - ranging from software companies to research and development (R&D) firms, consultants and schools - were honored for their contributions in Michigan.

It is an important time to recognize the innovations occurring within the state as an indicator of a brighter future. A recent University of Michigan economic forecast predicted that the state's unemployment rate will exceed 15 percent for most of 2010 and remain high into 2011 after heavy job losses in the manufacturing, construction, trade and utilities industries.

Yet, Michigan has one of the world's largest concentrations of educated and highly experienced engineering and technological workers, as well as the infrastructure and facilities in place to accommodate emerging industries, notes Nabil F. Grace, interim dean of Lawrence Technological University's College of Engineering. LTU is one of the award winners.

"The task is to seek out and encourage those industries and attract more here, and to retool that work force as needed to take advantage of new opportunities before this workforce goes elsewhere," Nabil says.

There is a range of opinions by the science and technology award winners on the future - such as whether to move away the automotive industry which traditionally built Michigan up or to continue embracing it while working on new solutions - but all seem to agree that the state needs to harness its immense talent and resources to correct the current problems.

"Despite the recent economic turmoil and the resulting bad press, Acro is very positive about the future of Michigan and its suitability for science and technology fields," says Ron Shahani, chief executive officer of Acro Service Corp., a Livonia information technology and engineering services business. "Michigan is blessed with world-leading educational institutions ... technical manpower - including thousands of engineers - and a strong industrial base."

When WWII broke out, Michigan "retooled" itself in a matter of weeks to provide 20 percent of all the war materials needed to preserve democracy, noted Ron Harwood, president and founder of Illuminating Concepts of Farmington Hills.

"Michigan can again retool itself and in fact, is retooling itself to be the leader in alternative energy production and storage," Harwood said. "We have one of the most experienced and educated populations in the fields of manufacturing and medical research as well as environmental preservation at our core. Coupled with one of the world's greatest water supplies and vast natural resources, Michigan only needs to collaborate more with companies within its borders to find the additional resources necessary to emerge as an industrial and scientific leader. Companies need to be more aggressive at pursuing relationships."

Southeast Michigan is not only the headquarters and R&D hub for our nation's domestic automotive industry, it is also where many of the world's preeminent science and engineering minds come to study and develop intellectually at the state's universities, said Dr. Grace M. Bochenek, director of the U.S. Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command's (RDECOM's) Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren.

"At a time when Michigan is looking for ways to diversify commercially and attract technology leaders, pairing military ground vehicle systems and the automotive industry is a logical approach," Bochenek said. "Developing a defense industry corridor allows access to vast amounts of automotive and engineering expertise, and offers the potential to continue developing advanced technologies to support war fighters for years to come."

Manufacturing will return to the U.S. as new technological innovations allow the company to compete, added Alain Piette, president of SpaceForm Welding Solutions Inc. of Madison Heights. His company, a spin-off from automotive supplier Delphi, offers an inexpensive and rapid method of welding tubular steel to other tube or sheet metal structures. Such a technology promises automakers a new way of building stronger, lighter cars in the future that are cost-competitive to manufacture.

"I do not see big leaps in technology but a continuous refinement and improvement," Piette said. "Only if we return to a producing nation will the U.S. be prosperous. Science and technology therefore need to stay on the forefront to make this possible."

Illuminating Concepts of Farmington Hills is one of the world's largest products of architectural and theatrical lighting, as well as sound and special effects designs. It makes lighting systems for cities, waterfronts and border towns where "smart lighting" is required for homeland security concerns. The firm's other divisions provide services for some of the largest and more prestigious projects around the world.

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