Manufacturing Matters! 2024 – Navigating the Unknown

By Kevin Kane, President – Southeast Wisconsin Market, First Business Bank

This year marked the 26th session of the annual Manufacturing Matters! conference. For the first time in many years, the event shifted to a new venue, the Brookfield Conference Center. While the downtown Hyatt served attendees, WMEP, and its partners well in the past, it seemed appropriate to explore a new experience. The Conference Center did not disappoint; its open, expansive space and plenty of natural lighting brought renewed energy to the gathering of 450 attendees representing nearly 100 different manufacturers, along with a number of other key partners.

With respect to partners, I was struck by the collective effort of so many organizations that, week in and week out, are committed to supporting a healthy manufacturing environment in our state. To start, WMEP Manufacturing Solutions, led by Chris Baichoo and its Board of Directors, the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity, led by Buckley Brinkman, and Wisconsin Economic Development, work tirelessly to support the companies in our state.

Beyond those directly involved in the conference, other local and state organizations, such as the Waukesha County Business Alliance, WMC, WCTC, and the other technical colleges throughout Wisconsin, deserve recognition for the role they play in our manufacturing success. As John Koskinen later observed, manufacturers’ share of our state GDP and per capita employment place us in the Top 5 nationally. Having lived and worked in Wisconsin for the majority of my professional career, I can’t speak to whether these partnerships are unique compared to other states; however, I can say emphatically there is no place I’d rather be than here in Wisconsin at a time when manufacturing is ascendant again!

The various sessions throughout our day together reflected the dynamic, rapidly changing environment faced by attendees as they seek to compete and thrive both in the U.S. as well as internationally. While automation to drive efficiency and address worker shortages remains a consistent theme following COVID, the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) over the last 12 months is remarkable. Out of 16 sessions, including Executive Briefings, ten addressed the need to understand and ultimately leverage AI in business; to do otherwise means being left behind.

Ryan Lonergan addresses WMEP’s Manufacturing Matters! Annual Conference.

And while AI is clearly a new frontier that creates uncertainty and perhaps fear, the human element in our personal lives and business remains preeminent. We gathered in person to share ideas, collaborate, and work together for the greater good of our economy and also our communities. This theme was brought forward with passion by the lunch and Keynote speaker, Ryan Lonergan, founder of Wisconsin Veteran, LLC. Ryan’s organization solves an ongoing challenge: finding talented employees in a scarce marketplace while honoring and leveraging the skills of those who served our nation, sometimes at great personal cost.

My concluding reflections on the Manufacturing Matters! conference are that we face unknowns on the road ahead. As always, those unknowns create risk and uncertainty, but they also create opportunities for manufacturers, large and small, here in our home state. I’m confident we are up to the challenge!

Kevin Kane, President – Southeast Wisconsin Market, First Business Bank

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