iNDustry Labs helps regional manufacturers operate ‘smarter’

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Above, John DeSalle, executive engineer in residence at iNDustry Labs, meets with the enFocus team dedicated to industry innovation. (Photos by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

John DeSalle’s retirement sounds a lot like work, but that’s how he likes it.

“It’s very rewarding to help a business become more productive, more resilient, and grow and attract talent,” he said.

A little over a year ago, DeSalle retired as president of Hoosier Racing Tire to join Notre Dame  as the first executive engineer in residence at Notre Dame’s iNDustry Labs, an anchor of the LIFT Network.

LIFT — an acronym for Labs for Industry Futures and Transformation — is a set of programs, facilities, and expertise poised to unite two of the region’s main economic drivers — its powerful manufacturing base and Notre Dame, a global tier-one research university. Powered by a $42.4 million Lilly Endowment grant, awarded in 2019, the effort aims to unlock transformative potential for the regional economy.

iNDustry Labs, meanwhile, serves as the University’s front door to regional manufacturers.

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The iNDustry Labs hub is located at Innovation Park just south of campus.

“We give companies a new thought process, a new way of looking at a problem and we provide them assistance, with all the resources Notre Dame has — all the labs, all the core facilities — and we've been able to help companies solve technological problems that they’ve had,” DeSalle said.


LIFT’s efforts are the next step in the evolution of the South Bend-Elkhart region as a community widely recognized as a source of innovation and a destination for talent. In 2015, the region benefited from a $42 million grant awarded by the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative to invest  in quality-of-life, economic development projects in Elkhart, Marshall and St. Joseph Counties. Collectively, these efforts are spurring a renaissance of the region, making it more attractive to potential employees and energizing the regional manufacturing base. Through it all, Notre Dame leaders have stood beside regional government and business leaders helping to turn the wheels of change.

An industrial revolution

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Tom Fuja, left, and Scott Ford lead efforts at iNDustry Labs.

Smart technologies are revolutionizing how industry operates.

“Information technology can change things overnight, and doing things the way they’ve done it for 30 or 50 years is not necessarily going to work in another five years,”  noted Tom Fuja, faculty director of iNDustry Labs and a professor of electrical engineering.

In order to survive and thrive, manufacturers must incorporate or expand the use of Industry 4.0 (smart technology) practices to gain the benefits of real-time data, interconnectivity and automation. Manufacturers slow to change their practices are vulnerable to disruption.

“The pandemic has spurred demand for recreational vehicles, creating profitable opportunities for that sector in the near term,” said Scott Ford, managing director of iNDustry Labs and associate vice president of economic development. “Yet, several regional business leaders have expressed a concern that the industry is poised for disruption by emerging companies, based out west and overseas, that are taking advantage of the digital practices.”

Ford notes this region is the third most vulnerable in the U.S. to negative disruption through automation.

“Half the workforce is in jobs that are at risk to be automated,” Ford said. “It’s imperative to couple the support for digital manufacturing with resources for training and skill development to expand opportunities for the workforce through the transition.”  

Change is hard

General Stamping & Metalworks in South Bend has smart technology and the ability to collect data in real-time to identify problems, but they needed help applying the data. That's where iNDustry Labs stepped in. (Photo provided)

It’s not that the region’s manufacturers are resisting change. In many cases, they simply don’t have the bandwidth to get there.

“You talk to the owners and they’re working seven days a week. They’ve got to juggle payroll and meet customer demands,” Ford said. “We had a video call with a business leader the other day who is normally in a starched shirt and his office looks like an Apple Store, and he comes running up to the video call with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his hands are black. He had been pitching in on the front line because they were down a person and he stepped in.”

Fuja and DeSalle have similar stories.

“You see in all these businesses, all these dedicated people,” DeSalle said. “They realize there are half a dozen things they wish they could do better as a company. Maybe they wish they were more digitally mature in an area of their manufacturing, but they don’t have the people, the talent to make that happen at the speed and at the scale that they want those things to happen. So what we’re able to do is bring them some really talented people to try to help them solve that problem.”

The talented people of iNDustry Labs include a team of enFocus Fellows dedicated to industry innovation — boasting recent graduates of notable engineering programs across the country, including Notre Dame. With DeSalle, they develop and implement strategic plans with manufacturers to diversify and grow business operations.

Recently added to iNDustry Labs is the first cohort of faculty affiliates — a multidisciplinary collection of 14 faculty and research staff members whose research, coursework and subject-matter expertise align with the interests of the local economy.

“They have experience that is valuable to the region’s industries and a history of engaging with industry. They have great connections. We meet with the faculty affiliates monthly. We discuss opportunities in the region for collaboration, and we try to identify ways to meet those needs with Notre Dame resources,” Fuja explained.

Some of those resources include undergraduates enrolled in engineering, business and arts and letters courses who take on capstone projects focused on local manufacturing.

 Only a year old and during a pandemic, iNDustry Labs is seeing some successes.

“We’ve helped companies with business processes, manufacturing processes and supply chain processes,” DeSalle said. “We’re painting a picture for some companies of what a digital future could look like for them. We show them the steps and say “We’re not going to abandon you. We’re going to help you and at some point you’ll have the momentum and the skills and you can carry it the rest of the way.”

How it works

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Above, enFocus Fellow Utkarsh Jain listens as colleague Berit Reisenauer Guidotti shares insights that could assist client General Stamping & Metalworks in South Bend.

A partnership with iNDustry Labs often starts with a manufacturer filling out an iNDustry 4.0 assessment,

Then, DeSalle and his enFocus Fellow colleagues work on the deeper assessment, accomplished through a combination of self-reporting, interviews and facility visits, to provide specific recommendations in a transformation plan.

If this sounds like consultant work, it is, but thanks to the grant it comes at no cost to the company.

“A lot of consultants come in with a solution before they know what the problem is,” said John Axelberg, president of General Stamping & Metalworks, or GSM, a fabricated metal products company in South Bend.

“I was very impressed with the iNDustry Labs team’s ability to develop and ask the right questions. They did a good job of listening to everyone at all levels of the organization. And then they articulated that into a strategic plan going forward for this year. A lot of times with traditional consulting, it’s very high level and there’s not a lot of depth or meat to their findings,” Axelberg said.

Company leaders learn a lot through the assessment process, as do the fellows who may have limited industry experience, but, according to Axelberg, “are such good thinkers.”

A case study

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GSM turned to iNDustry Labs following a “record growth year” in 2019 that “exposed some potential areas of improvement,” said Ken Rose, the company’s director of operations.

Specifically, GSM could improve its capacity planning, the process of determining production capacity to meet changing demands for its products.


There are literally thousands of moving pieces at GSM, which produces stamped, bent or laser cut metal parts for a wide range of industries, including commercial, military and recreational vehicles, lawn and garden equipment, heavy equipment and utility-scale solar energy products.

“Unlike a company that makes a finished product which rolls off an assembly line at a steady rhythm every day, we’re supporting hundreds of different assembly lines,” Axelberg explained. “We have over 10,000 active part numbers we could be making at any given time. So it’s really, really complex.”

GSM has smart technology and the ability to collect data in real-time to identify problems, but they needed help applying the data.

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“We knew what our problems were, but the iNDustry Labs team came in and talked to our people, spending a lot of time on the plant floor, and identified which of those problems were impacting our frontline workers the most. That gave us the structure to prioritize the projects and clarify our own thinking about what’s important,” Axelberg said. “They’ve given us our homework.”

The homework includes some smaller projects, such as one related to computer science that a couple of Notre Dame undergraduates will take on as a project this semester.

“It’s centered in math, algorithms and statistics,” Rose said. “So it’s a lot of data mining and analysis.”

Building an economic ecosystem

Axelberg and Rose are optimistic that as iNDustry Labs develops and works with more manufacturers, the impact on the region could be significant. For example, as regional industries modernize, related, cutting edge industries may emerge or be attracted to the area, the local economy will flourish and young talent educated at Notre Dame and other area universities and colleges may choose to remain here to work.

“I've made comments to John DeSalle about the talent that’s coming into enFocus. We would hire any of these folks in a heartbeat because of the capability that they've demonstrated during this assessment,” Rose said.

Retaining that kind of talent would be a win for the area, which is part of the greater plan to elevate the South Bend-Elkhart region.

When LIFT was announced, Father Jenkins and the University’s senior leadership expressed that Notre Dame is committed to this for the long haul,” Ford said. “We are working together to change a mindset and spark a deeper collaboration to improve the region.”