Hurdling obstacles: NEO is forging a path as a smart manufacturing hub

Wooster-based precision parts maker Midway Swiss Turn recently hired its first senior-level manager to help handle increased workload from a growing clientele portfolio. The 12-person shop also brought in two new machinists to tackle complicated job orders that require the latest manufacturing equipment expertise.

Although talent and technology come at a cost, collaborating with clients from the aerospace and defense industries makes the expenditure critical to the company’s bottom line, notes CEO Jayme Rahz.  

Midway Swiss implemented AI machine monitoring, a system providing granular insight into equipment condition and efficiencyMidway Swiss implemented AI machine monitoring, a system providing granular insight into equipment condition and efficiency“Our customers know this technology exists, so they’re drawing up complex parts and looking for businesses that can make them,” she explains. “That’s expected and demanded. We can either adopt new technology and grow, or else we’ll be doing the same-old, same-old.”

A report released in March by Cleveland’s Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) revealed that Northeast Ohio as a whole is making strides to become an advanced production hub.

The organization’s first Blueprint Report Card—MAKE IT HAPPEN: A Progress Report on the Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio—illuminated a local industry closing the talent gap, adopting new technologies, boosting innovation, and diversifying leadership.

Data collected by MAGNET over the last two years shows a region improving in talent, technology, idea generation, and leadership. On the employment side, Northeast Ohio created 10,000 new smart manufacturing jobs, mostly mid-skill positions that producers nationwide have difficulty filling.

“Broadly, these jobs are ones manufacturers have a lot of—like welding, CNC machining, maintenance technology, and robot programming,” says Ethan Karp, president and CEO of MAGNET. “These are positions that pay $20 to $21 hourly, where no-skill jobs like box packing pay $16 to $17 [an hour].”

Gains and pains

The local manufacturing workforce has become more diversified as well, according to the MAGNET report. About 2,000 people of color entered the industry in the past two years. Just as critically, the region saw an 80% jump in women and minorities in leadership positions.

Workforce DiversityWorkforce DiversityFor example, E.C. Kitzel & Sons hired a Latino chief operating officer set to take ownership of the Parma-based tooling business in the next few years. The succession plan reflects Kitzel’s diverse staff—a workforce comprised of Black employees as well as a transgender team member, says Aram Nerpouni, MAGNET’s managing director of talent.

“Manufacturing tends to be old and white, so the thought process [at Kitzel] was broadening that funnel as much as possible,” Nerpouni says. “If you have diverse leadership, that opens the funnel for you.”

The original Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio was released in June 2021 by a MAGNET-led coalition of more than 150 manufacturing CEOs and community, civic, nonprofit and education leaders.

The report also forecasted a future where talent, technology, and fresh leadership are the benchmarks of success. A regional transformation in technology, for instance, encompasses robotics, connected computing, enhanced automation, and other applications surrounding Industry 4.0.

MAGNET’s update provided both good news and bad on the technology front. While high-tech adoption grew 80% since 2019, the leap was tempered by a region starting from a low adoption rate. What’s more, only a minority of manufacturers (28%) are actually using Industry 4.0 innovations.

With technological transformation a vital facet of the global economy, MAGNET provides “Lighthouse Tours” for entrepreneurs considering an investment. Yet, the tours generally don’t attract new adopters—the population the region needs to create a robust advanced manufacturing hub, Karp says.

“The people who are already doing something go to the lighthouses to learn what else they can do,” explains Karp, adding that tours are hosted by area businesses proficient in Industry 4.0. “It’s like they’ve been bitten by a bug and are hungry to see what else is taking place. So, you see the same numbers of companies growing while the rest are not.”

Technology = talent

Last year, Midway Swiss implemented AI machine monitoring—a system providing granular insight into equipment condition and efficiency. Upgrades continued into 2024 with the purchase of a robot-enhanced milling tool – a further sign of growth that, far from scaring off potential hires, draws talent seeking an innovative workplace, says CEO Rahz.

Efforts from MAGNET as well as the Ohio TechCred program are helping employees upskill in an increasingly technology-infused manufacturing environmentEfforts from MAGNET as well as the Ohio TechCred program are helping employees upskill in an increasingly technology-infused manufacturing environmentShe adds that efforts from MAGNET, as well as the Ohio TechCred program, are helping employees upskill in an increasingly technology-infused manufacturing environment.

“The younger generation has grown up with technology being a part of daily life,” Rahz says. “When they see a company that is embracing technology and moving forward, they see an opportunity for continued growth over the long term. No one wants to jump on a sinking ship.”

Due to recent growth, Midway Swiss is currently seeking a quality manager and additional machinist hires. Shop floor employees must do more than work a machine—they should be familiar with automation, AI equipment monitoring, and more.

New hires are not expected to have deep expertise coming in, as Rahz’s company offers on-the-job training to new employees.

“We’re mostly looking for highly motivated individuals who want to continuously learn and grow,” says Rahz. “We don’t hire very often because of our size, but we don’t have the same turnover problems that other companies have, either. Even if we really need a position filled, we’ll spend the time and wait on the right person for the job.”

Northeast Ohio must continue to scale its workforce programs to create streams of fresh, diverse talent eager to tackle new challenges and technologies, says Karp of MAGNET.  A thriving smart manufacturing ecosystem can give the region a competitive advantage that the advocacy group leader will then gladly sing to the high heavens.

“We’ll continue putting stories out,” he says. “Economic development takes years and years. We’re going to keep up with this to show folks that we’re on this long trajectory.”

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.