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ML Journal

ML Journal

DIALOGUE: Creating Corning’s Digital Framework

A common M4.0 framework optimizes best practices, empowers better decisions, and drives competitive advantage, believes Corning SVP John McGirr.      

“Digital solutions broaden the range of possibilities for everything. The question is, what problems are you trying to solve?”

John McGirr, former Senior Vice President, Manufacturing, Corning Incorporated.

Founded as a small glass workshop in Corning, NY, in 1851 by merchant Amory Houghton Snr., Corning Incorporated is now a $14 billion global enterprise employing 61,000 people and producing glass, ceramics, and advanced materials in more than 30 countries around the world.

The company’s 170-year history is characterized by consistent innovation, from glass casings for Thomas Edison’s revolutionary carbon filament electric light bulbs back in the 1870s, to Pyrex glass, silicone resins, cathode ray tubes, optical fibers, clean air emission filters for motor vehicles, robust glass screens for today’s mobile devices, and speciality glass vials to safely store and transport life-saving COVID vaccines.

As Senior Vice President of Manufacturing at Corning, John McGirr helped accelerate the company’s most recent manufacturing transformation over the last three years. Now appointed to Senior Vice President and General Manager of its Optical Fiber and Cable division, McGirr looks back at his manufacturing role at Corning with Manufacturing Leadership Council Executive Editor Paul Tate, and shares his insights on the importance of creating a common digital framework for M4.0, how fast and accurate data is increasingly critical in dealing with disruption, the coordination of M4.0 initiatives with broader enterprise-wide digital strategies, and balancing new ideas about a future manufacture metaverse with the requirements of real world production.

Q: What was the scope of your role as SVP of Manufacturing at Corning?
A: Corning is represented by nine distinct businesses and an emerging innovations group. Each of those businesses has a manufacturing leader. My role was to Chair our Manufacturing Effectiveness Council (MEC), made up of manufacturing leaders from all those businesses. That’s where we make sure that if you go into a Corning factory, the values and the way we approach manufacturing is consistent. It ensures synergy between the manufacturing operations in each business, as well as sharing best practice capabilities and competencies that can be applied functionally across all businesses. Defining a M4.0 strategic framework that is centrally accelerated and edge driven in the businesses, is one example of the initiatives that the MEC executes globally across all Corning’s activities.

“The goal is to have fast and accurate information which enables a competitive advantage for micro and macro decision making.”


Q: What key trends are driving Corning’s business transformation today?
A: We have always been on a digital journey. What’s currently driving the need to accelerate that digital transformation is the need for faster information, both for insights and for first mover opportunities to gain competitive advantage.

When I first came into the role I’d often ask, “We’ve been doing digital for a long time now. What is different? Why are we now talking about a digital transformation?”

What I discovered, and then sought to exploit, was there have been distinct changes in the technology. Number one, the cost of sensors and the ability to gather data is significantly more sophisticated, easier, and lower cost today. Second, the ability to transfer that data, even between disparate systems, is much easier. And I can now curate that data and turn it into information using analytics, modelling, and other tools that have made it way more sophisticated and faster to do.

The goal is to have fast and accurate information which enables a competitive advantage for micro and macro decision making. At Corning, we recognized the pace at which these digital solutions were evolving and quickly developed our M4.0 framework in response. With all the things that are happening in our environment these days, we constantly need to work out where the next challenge is coming from and how we react to it. The need for fast information has now become the number one factor in being able to deal with those issues.

Q: What were your most important digital initiatives?
A: First it was to respond to the pandemic and support Corning’s innovation in glass for vaccine vials. Our support of Operation Warp Speed meant we had to put in capacity extremely fast to be able to manufacture more and more of the vials the world needed. Expanding bricks and mortar and buying equipment all had to be done faster than ever before. One of the unique challenges related to digital was to work out how the learning curve from that pilot plant could help us be a lot faster. To do that meant we needed to really understand our process control, how could we sense what was happening, and how could we get the right data. We already had some ideas of the best architecture and applications to use from our initial work on an M4.0 framework – knowing what good looked like for a digital factory. It all came together and enabled us to accelerate the greenfield learning curve and deliver vials at scale on time.

“We needed a strategy that enabled our manufacturing businesses to retain the steering wheel when driving digital where it was most impactful, but still retain a centralized approach to leveraging our IT, development, and engineering corporate functions.”

A second initiative centred on predictive maintenance. We’d been moving from corrective maintenance to preventative, but the next step to predictive was a little more difficult. We had some great pilots going on in our M 4.0 transformation that were focused on the business impact of more uptime and the lower cost of maintenance. We knew there was absolutely more potential there. So, we worked with engineers and put sensors on machines to get the data, then we could curate it, and put some analysis and modelling around it. That meant bringing in data scientists, which not many of our factories had on their org. charts at the time. The modelling they could do then allowed us to truly reach a level of predictive maintenance that delivered significant savings and benefits.

Another was with the global disruption in supply chain logistics when inventory became super important. The natural reaction to supply assurance is to carry more inventory. We didn’t want to do that. Digital became the backbone of multiple new capabilities and competencies that we implemented to increase resiliency and improve our inventory management processes.

Those are just some of the examples that allowed us to deploy, scale and recognize meaningful results with our digital transformation.

Q: How did you approach creating a common digital framework for M4.0?
A: We began by asking ourselves, “What do we mean by M 4.0?” And we started to write it down. That drove the creation of the framework, so that if we were building a greenfield plant we could say, here are all the wonderful applications that we would want to have. It was important to know first, however, where solutions would matter and add value to the business. It is very easy to fall into the trap of doing things that are cool, but really are not impactful to the factory.

So, we identified what the architecture or infrastructure should look like for those applications in the factory. And now we’ve added a third layer, cyber security. How do we make sure that the applications and infrastructure we set up can defend against a cyberattack?

When we wrote it all down, literally wrote down what ‘good’ looked like for M 4.0, I said, “Well, now we have an M 4.0 framework. Let’s go and assess all of our factories across the board.”

So, we assessed each plant by the applications and infrastructure they had, if they were using them, and if they had the capabilities and competencies to use them effectively. We found out that some new areas, particularly related to analytics and modelling, digital twins, and some of the more sophisticated data and information tools, weren’t scoring very well. But we also found areas on the legacy side that weren’t scoring very well either. So, we defined a solution roadmap for each plant to get it to where it needed to be, not by doing it in silos and one-off projects, but by talking about how we can fix and upgrade the legacy, introduce new, and so it all becomes one continuum of digital.

The worst thing a plant needs are people coming in saying, “Hey, here’s all this really cool stuff related to M 4.0,” then setting up a pilot project, and finally leaving with high-fives about the results, but leaves the people in the plant wondering, “I don’t understand why they just don’t fix my MES or my ERP system.”

“We introduced the ‘Be the Spark’ program to excite our employees about digital so they could hear directly from practitioners at all levels about the advances being made.”


Q: How are you developing talent to support a digitally enabled manufacturing enterprise?
A: We learned from the assessment on the competency side that we didn’t have the talent we needed to use even some of the legacy digital systems we had, as well as the new stuff.  So, we had choices to make. Do we bring in all new people? Do we re-recruit and train and educate? We took a dual approach. Internally we introduced the ‘Be the Spark’ and similar other programs that are designed to excite our employees about digital so they can hear directly from practitioners at all levels across all businesses and functions about the advances being made. It uses digital to spread digital awareness. In certain areas we needed to tactically add resources, so we augmented our organization with the talents and capabilities of data scientists and then infused that capability with the subject matter knowhow that we already have in our factories.

Q: How are you managing the vast amounts of data being generated by multiple 4.0 technologies?
A: Data management is very, very important. One of the biggest breakthroughs for digital has been solutions that are agnostic to the applications used. That is especially beneficial for companies that have legacy systems, long roadmaps for upgrading, and perhaps multiple systems through mergers & acquisition. These solutions can capture data into a lake or similar cloud repository and the raw data can then be curated and analysed regardless of sensor or system source. That’s a huge benefit. But all data is not created equal. That’s why curating the data is essential. That’s turned into a tiering process for us depending on the information needed, the accuracy, and the speed. You may want to have data that is very clean and very reliable. Or you may just need to know the general direction it is pointing in, so you don’t need to go through any additional analysis. Data management is still a challenge, of course, but solutions are evolving all the time on how to best acquire, curate, store/retrieve, and cull all that data.

Q: How does the manufacturing operations M4.0 framework fit in with the broader digital initiatives across the Corning enterprise?
A: In parallel with what we were doing with M 4.0, our Chief Information and Digital Officer, Anne Mullins, defined a digital strategy for the entire corporation and established a Digital Operating Committee which serves as a cross functional steering team to centrally accelerate our digital effort. The DOC positions seed funding for pilots and scaling projects and monitors the return for the corporation. Prior to this we had benchmarked companies on their approach, such as big bang central digital vs evolving grassroots digital, and we ended up with a hybrid that is built around the concept of edge driven and centrally accelerated. We needed a strategy that enabled our manufacturing businesses to retain the steering wheel when driving digital where it was most impactful, but still retain a centralized approach to leveraging our IT, development, and engineering corporate functions to seed projects, support and fund scale up, and ensure we benchmarked best practices. Now, M 4.0 has really become a portion of that strategy, a work stream within that overall strategy.

“It is very easy to fall into the trap of doing things that are cool, but really are not impactful to the factory.”


Q: Looking ahead, what would you highlight as the greatest business challenges and opportunities for the manufacturing industry over the next five years?
A: Externally, the rapidly changing dynamic environment that we need to operate in today is on everybody’s mind, whether it’s geopolitical, economic, medical like the pandemic, climate change, supply chain disruption, or even cultural issues. We need to respond to those. At the same time, we have aspirations in sustainability where we think there’s a better desired future state that we also want to put energy into.

Internally, a company’s ability to adapt to new solutions to deal with these external trends is really important; things like doing product innovation faster, making sure assets and factories are flexible, and improving workforce development to make sure you are keeping up with the digital capabilities and competencies that are going to be required to meet all those challenges.

If we look back, manufacturing went through the various phases of quality and Six Sigma, and then we talked about Lean manufacturing and just in time, and all the things to remove waste from a factory. I think there’s still a thread of principles in those prior legacy actions that are important to carry forward. We just have better tools to apply today. I also think that new ideas like the metaverse, for example, mean manufacturing has got to stay in that pioneering mode, be nimble enough, and constantly challenge itself, to make sure it’s always exploring new things and not missing something by clinging to the old ways.

Q: What new leadership skills do you feel that senior industry executives now need to successfully drive that continuing digital transformation?
A: I think many of today’s manufacturing leaders will struggle in tomorrow’s environment. Why? Because the cadence and pace of learning continues to step up, so the propensity for learning has to be accelerated. Reading best manufacturing books is not enough anymore. Maybe digital will help us digest what it is we need to know in a more timely way. Personally, I think leaders need to be part of a think tank to find thought leadership through sharing to really make sure they’re plugged in, or they’ll get passed by. That’s super important for tomorrow’s leaders. They need to be able to ingest new information, new capabilities, competencies, skills, and experiences in order to ensure that the human leadership aspect of manufacturing is able to adapt to the many fast-changing external environmental factors to maintain a competitive edge.

“New ideas like the metaverse mean that manufacturing has got to stay in a pioneering mode, be nimble enough, and constantly challenge itself, to make sure it’s always exploring new things and not missing something by clinging to the old ways.”


Q: What’s your view on the so-called “Manufacturing Metaverse” concept that some observers believe is the future of digital manufacturing?
A: I think it’s an interesting concept. We are an innovation company, so it is in our DNA to take theory to concept and seek applicability. We’ve talked about convergence for years related to data and what could things like a cell phone do other than just use it to talk. I see this as a continued evolution of that to where, at some point, all of that data could be made available in a kind of parallel virtual world.

Digital solutions broaden the range of possibilities for everything. The question is, what problem are you trying to solve and does this do it, or is it just really cool technology? So, it’s trying to understand how that metaverse idea could be leveraged and how could it improve our factories. On the frontlines, they want digital that helps them today to compete and win. But sometimes, you don’t know what you don’t know, so we’ll probably explore with some R&D pilot projects. But in manufacturing, all the data and understanding and knowledge and learning still has to manifest itself in the conversion of raw materials into a product somewhere in the real world.

Q: Finally, if you had to focus on one thing as a watchword or catchphrase for the future of manufacturing, what would that be?
A: My advice for the future would be: Think in the Metaverse, but make in the universe. With the advent of digital and the concept of a Metaverse we can start to see how things may change. But the reality is that manufacturing is still done in a factory. You still have to produce physical products in the real world. I think we’ll need a blend of both in the years ahead. The Metaverse can make for smarter manufacturing and engagement. But in the end, all the legacy ideas about quality and Lean manufacturing will still matter just as much as they ever did. The Metaverse can be an enhancer and a way to augment that process. But unless we figure out how to create a kind of Star Trek Replicator to suddenly materializing things, manufacturers will be making products in the real world for many years to come.   M

FACT FILE: Corning Incorporated
HQ: Corning, NY
Industry Sector: Glass and Ceramic Materials
Sales: $14.1 Billion (2021)
Net Income: $1.9 Billion (2021)
Employees: ~61,000 Employees
Presence: >30 Countries, 150 Locations
Production Sites: >75 Manufacturing Facilities Worldwide

Title: Senior Vice President and General Manager, Optical Fiber & Cable, Corning Incorporated.
Nationality: American
Education: BSc. Degree, Electrical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology; Nuclear Propulsion, Nuclear Power School, U.S. Naval Nuclear Power Training Command (NNPTC)
Languages: English
Previous Roles Include:
 –  Senior Vice President, Manufacturing, Corning Incorporated.
–  Vice President, Manufacturing, Optical Connectivity Solutions, Corning Incorporated.
–  Division Vice President, Manufacturing & Supply Chain Operations, Corning Life Sciences
–  Director, Manufacturing & Supply Chain Operations, Corning Life Sciences
–  Director, Manufacturing Excellence, Corning Incorporated.
–  Plant Manager & Global Manufacturing Support Manager, Corning Cable Systems, LLC
–  Plant Operations Manager, Corning Cable Systems, LLC
–  Plant Engineering Manager, Siecor
–  Plant Engineering Supervisor, Siecor
–  Production Team Leader, Siecor
–  Project Engineer, Mobil Oil Company
–  Submarine Officer, U.S. Navy (1986-1991)

Other Industry Roles/Awards/Board Memberships
 –  Board Member, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)
–  U.S. Patent 2002: Reel Monitor Devices


About the author:
Paul Tate is Co-founding Executive Editor and Senior Content Director of the NAM’s. Manufacturing Leadership Council.



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