Blake Moret: Leading the Smart Manufacturing Revolution

An interview with Matt Kirchner and Blake Moret, Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation

Matt Kirchner 

On The TechEd Podcast, we are always proud to introduce you to guests who operate on the cutting edge. We talk with those who are innovating in new and incredible ways. guests who play a role in the world of automation, of data science, of advanced control systems, digital twins. We have learned about smart sensors and smart devices, and augmented reality.

Today we are joined by a guest whose company is innovating not just in one or two of these technologies, but in all of them. Now, I’ve been close to our guest’s company for decades, recognized by many thanks to the huge four-sided clock in the heart of my hometown. Rockwell Automation holds an iconic position in Milwaukee, in the USA and across the globe. I admired their business from afar while growing up and through the early parts of my career. And then in 1998, I learned firsthand what an amazing company Rockwell Automation was when I was named the CEO of one of their spinoffs. For nearly a decade, Rockwell Automation was that company’s largest customer, and I had a standing meeting at their corporate office every single Monday at one o’clock. That started more than 20 years ago. And I hold Rockwell in as high regard today as I did back then.

Now because they are an innovator, because they are so committed to world class advanced manufacturing, because they touch more amazing technologies than almost any company I can think of, it is awesome to have today’s guest join us on The TechEd Podcast. Blake Moret is Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation, the world’s largest company dedicated to industrial automation and digital transformation. In this role, they are committed and our guest is committed to delivering the company’s strategy to bring the connected enterprise to life. A graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Blake Moret has been a member of the Rockwell team for nearly 36 years. Blake Moret, Chairman and CEO welcome of Rockwell Automation, welcome to The TechEd Podcast.

Blake Moret 

Matt, thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to join you on the podcast.

Rockwell Automation’s Strong History in Milwaukee

Matt Kirchner 

And it’s a pleasure to have you with us. I want to start – you know, I just noted in your introduction, Blake – 36 years with the same company. And one of the things I noted about Rockwell when I worked so closely with your team 20 years ago, and it’s still true today, is when I asked team members – and I always like to do this when I talk to folks from Rockwell – how long they have worked there, they respond with answers like 20 and 30, and even 40 years or more. So what does it take to build a culture that makes your team members want to stay such an important part of your organization for their entire careers?

Blake Moret 

Well, it starts with conducting yourself in a way such that your employees really believe that you’re there for them, and that you’re genuinely interested in their well being and their ability to create a meaningful career with the company. And we’ve had that foundation since we started. I mean, everybody in Milwaukee has a family member or close friend who worked at some time for Rockwell or before that Allen-Bradley. So we had that rock solid foundation.  

I think you know, that has evolved. And certainly over the last 12 months during the pandemic, the things that we’ve done to look after our people, to focus on preserving the maximum amount of jobs as a starting point. To make sure that we created support groups for employees, particularly those with families to make sure that we could do what we were able to do to help them during this time.  

I would also say that doing a little bit more to define what it is about our culture that we’re going to continue to focus on. And it starts with strengthening an already good culture of integrity and diversity and inclusion, being willing to compare ourselves to the very best other alternatives that our various stakeholders have, increased speed of decision making, and really just looking at creating a steady stream of new ideas from both existing and new employees.

Matt Kirchner 

So a fantastic culture, one that is certainly sticky in terms of hanging on to really really good people. And you’re right you have so many great people. Of course, myself living in the Milwaukee area – it’s exactly correct: everybody has a neighbor, a friend, a parent of one of your kids’ friends who worked and/or works at Rockwell Automation. And it’s a company that is called Milwaukee home now for almost 120 years. You know, a company like yours could be headquartered just about anywhere. What is it about the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin that keeps you here?

Blake Moret 

Well, first of all, it’s close to our customers. Wisconsin has one of the densest per capita concentrations of manufacturing. And of course, the American Midwest is a huge manufacturing center. So that’s a good place to be, to be close to customers, to be able to get that direct feedback by having relationships that spanned decades. We have a strong reputation, of course in the community. And so that helps us with recruiting in some of our key locations. Not only is our headquarters in Milwaukee, but we have five different manufacturing locations throughout Wisconsin. So that’s important to us.  

And it allows us to have a strong link with the community beginning with K-12 STEM education through programs like Project Lead the Way, with universities with like what we’re doing with MSOE, University of Wisconsin in Madison, we were the founding member of the Connected Systems Institute with UWM. So it’s those connections that mean a lot. And then finally, and I can say this as someone who grew up not in Milwaukee: Milwaukee is a great place to live. I’ve lived here now most of my adult life. I’ve lived in a lot of places around the world. I love living in Milwaukee. 

Why Invest in PTC and Emulate 3D?

Matt Kirchner 

Fantastic. So it is a great city. You mentioned some ways in which your organization is investing in the future of technology here in the city of Milwaukee and really across the globe. I should mention as you reference the Connected Systems Institute, both the Chancellor and the Provost of UWM will be guests, I believe, next week or the week after on The TechEd Podcast. So they’ll be in really good company and will appreciate your reference to the great things that they are doing.  

You know, as we think about investing in technology, as we think about the future of manufacturing, of innovation…you created a strategic alliance with PTC, your acquisition of Emulate 3D: just great examples of investments that Rockwell continues to make in Industry 4.0 level technologies. What is it about some of these initiatives that was attractive to Rockwell as you think about those investments? 

Blake Moret 

To start with, with PTC, we made a sizable billion dollar investment in the company. It was gonna help us move faster in some areas that weren’t gonna wait. An example I give often is having access to augmented reality technology: being able to include it in our solutions almost immediately after we reached that agreement with PTC. It would have taken us much longer to have developed that technology from the ground up starting from almost a blank sheet of paper as Rockwell. We might have made a full acquisition, but either of those alternatives would have taken us longer. And I’m not sure that we would have had the differentiated solution that we have today.  

When it comes to Emulate 3D, simulation is an important technology. It’s going to become more important in the future. And it was accelerated through the pandemic because it was vitally important to be able to do as much of the commissioning, and de-bottlenecking of new lines, new machines, without having a whole bunch of people from different companies standing around together on a plant floor. Being able to do more of that remotely was keenly important during the pandemic. And it’s going to be important as a way to be more efficient early in that design and commissioning process. And Emulate 3D is a great technology to help manufacturers model the exact performance of the code that they’ve developed and the machinery that they’ve produced.

What New Technologies Should We Keep Our Eyes On?

Matt Kirchner 

Absolutely. So certainly PTC on the augmented reality side, I’ve experienced that technology. I spent some time at Automation Fair a year ago, a little over a year ago in Chicago. And one of your colleagues we’ll reference in just a moment, introduced me to the folks at Emulate 3D and to the digital twin technology that they are innovating and already putting the work in manufacturing. Just absolutely fascinating technologies, and really great examples of how the world of advanced manufacturing is continuing to evolve.

I know one of the things, Blake, that our audience will be particularly interested in is in thinking about those advancements in technology. What are some of the other technologies that you have your eyes on or that our audience should have their eyes on as we move ahead?

Blake Moret 

Well, we span of course across the hardware offerings and into software and then high value services as well. A few that come to mind are software for supply chain management – being able to link increasingly complex supply chains with what’s actually happening in a customer’s production environment. When you’re talking to Chief Supply Officers or the people responsible for production at our customers, nothing gets their heads nodding, “Yes, I need that” than talking about concepts like the connected supply chain.

Quality is another area – continues to be important. And again, with disaggregated supply chains, bringing new suppliers on, trying to get new processes to market quicker, the quality is absolutely essential. Asset management to be more predictive about being able to maintain expensive assets in a manufacturing environment.

And then additional ways to add innovative component technology in markets that are not our traditional homes. So thinking about motion control technology – very important for packaging being used for material handling; variable frequency drives. These are components that we’ve offered for many years, but there continues to be quite a bit of opportunity for innovation.

How Are Manufacturing Careers Evolving?

Matt Kirchner 

So supply chain management, quality asset management, talking about traditional technologies, or at least somewhat traditional technologies like motion control, and variable frequency drives, but finding new applications for those types of technologies, are just some of the ways that your organization is thinking about the evolution of manufacturing. Certainly that evolution affects not just technology, and not just your clients, but your workforce as well. Would be curious, Blake, as you look at how manufacturing careers at Rockwell are evolving, and particularly those on the shop floor. How have they changed in the 35 years that you’ve worked for the company?

Blake Moret 

Well, I think we see increasing importance being placed on cross-training to have a flexible workforce that helps one with helping those employees have the most fulfilling career to give them a wider career lattice if you will, as opposed to just a ladder to climb. And then also increasing comfort interacting with advanced manufacturing technology. You know, whether you’re an individual contributor on the plant floor, or whether you’re a manager, you’re going to be interacting with, you know, mobile computing devices. And because it’s either on the machinery, or it’s being used to collect and analyze the data that’s coming off of those processes.

Matt Kirchner 

So with that evolution, I love the term career lattice, by the way, because really, when we talk to to young people and people of all ages, as they consider opportunities and careers in manufacturing, it really is a situation where you’re not just getting into a single career pathway. But we’ve got all kinds of options available to them. And we’re hearing about new options. Many companies are adding roles in the areas of cloud computing, data science, artificial intelligence, and so on. You know, I’m sure there’s some careers that exist today at Rockwell that maybe didn’t exist 10 years ago, and for that matter, some that will exist 10 years from now that don’t exist today. What are some interesting careers you can share with us that are new as we work into this new age of technology? 

Blake Moret 

Well, we certainly see increased relevance of cloud computing for certain applications impacting manufacturing. It’s not all going to move to the cloud. But when you’re comparing throughput, for instance, for multiple lines, multiple plants, being able to provide that information across a worldwide enterprise. Now cloud, and as a service business models are very pertinent to that sort of thing. And we’re certainly adding considerably through acquisitions and hiring to people who can build, you know, a strong SAAS architecture for these various applications.  

Cybersecurity consulting – got to keep it safe. And that’s a very fast growing part of our business, because some of the issues are a little different in the non-carpeted part of the enterprise as they are in the carpeted part of the enterprise. The deployment of solutions where software is the key differentiator. So our solutions business is moving from one that was probably a little more heavily biased towards hardware-based solutions. There’s still hardware there. But the differentiator is increasingly in the software.  

Digital marketing to be able to help customers go further in their selection process and their discovery process without actually having to talk to somebody. And then engineers who are very comfortable working with advanced simulation tools. We talked about Emulate 3D; one of our partners ANSYS has great product design simulation. So those are going to be skill sets that are going to be in high demand as we go forward.

Rockwell’s Partnership with SACA and Workforce Training Programs

Matt Kirchner 

So if we had turned the clock back 10 or 20 years, imagine us sitting here talking about things like digital marketing, and SAAS architectures, cyber security consultants, deployment of all these different technologies. How the world has changed in so many ways over the course of the last 10 or 15 years. And certainly Rockwell Automation is no exception to that impact. And creating some really, really cool career opportunities for our young people.

On that topic, I want to turn now and talk just a little bit, Blake, about the world of education. Now over the course of the last five years or so, I’ve gotten to know one of your colleagues, Michael Cook incredibly well. Michael is the Director of Global Academic Partnerships for Rockwell Automation. And I know that Michael is actually a name that is probably familiar to a great many of our audience members. He’s been an incredibly strong advocate, not just for technical education in general, but for the Smart Automation Certification Alliance. Rockwell recently announced that it had joined SACA as a platinum member. As you know, this effort allows your companies to earn SACA certifications, will provide scholarships to sponsor additional educational institutions and teachers as they start new industry 4.0 certification programs. What do you see as the key benefits that you’re creating with the world of education?

Blake Moret 

When I was the chair of the Manufacturing Institute, part of the National Association of Manufacturers, we spent a lot of time thinking about what are the key pillars of the type of education that was needed in our area of manufacturing. And we talked about three key things. We talked about the concept of lifelong learning – more on and off ramps, if you will, to that education. We talked about outcome-based instruction. And we talked about ongoing partnerships, to your point, with learning centers of all types, and manufacturers so that those learning centers can tune their curriculum to be close to what manufacturers are looking for.  

And so when we develop programs, like our Academy of Advanced Manufacturing, you know, a 12 week hands-on program to help returning veterans find technician-level jobs at our customers. That’s not possible without being very close one: to what manufacturers need in their employees, and two: being able to amplify our efforts by making that curriculum available to technical training institutions. And so those are a few of the things. But those partnerships, and being able to span the world of academia to manufacturing and stay close to what’s needed, to be able to make sure that it’s focused on the outcomes that they’re looking for – that’s what we value so highly.

Matt Kirchner 

So incredibly important, those partnerships. And on that particular topic, I know you and I both share a partner in the company FANUC America. In fact, their President and CEO Mike Cicco was a guest on our podcast not too terribly long ago. I’ve actually traveled to Japan twice in the last three or four years with Mike; I know you had a similar experience on a trip to Japan with Mike Cicco and others at FANUC. Along with FANUC America, Rockwell recently announced a coalition around work and learn apprenticeship programs designed to upskill upcoming and current workers for careers in advanced manufacturing. I’m curious as we talk about all of these opportunities for young people, all these opportunities for students, all of the different ways we need to think about getting people excited about careers in advanced manufacturing – do you see apprenticeships as a key part of your future workforce building strategy?

Blake Moret 

I do. Again, it’s you know, the idea of having to have a sequential approach where you go through high school, and then you immediately have to go, you know, to a four-year or two-year institution just isn’t in the card for some members of the potential workforce. And so being able to have parallel development of being able to work, but also study at the same time and get that real-world experience makes people who’ve gone through those programs so very valuable. And FANUC recognizes that – the importance of having not only great technology, like FANUC has, like Rockwell has, but having a highly trained workforce comfortable with interacting with that technology.

What Dream Would You Make True for Education?

Matt Kirchner 

Absolutely. That interaction with technology, getting people to the point where they are comfortable with it, they understand it, and they understand all of these career pathways that are available to them as a result. So credit to both Rockwell and FANUC for their vision in creating this program. And we’re really looking forward to what the future holds there. 

Our guest today on The TechEd Podcast is the Chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation, Mr. Blake Moret. Blake, I think we’ve got time for just about one more question. We’re going to turn you for the moment into an imaginary magician. You get to work with technical education folks all over the country all over the world, as does your team. So I’m going to give you here on The TechEd Podcast, a magic wand. And I want you to tell us: if you could make one dream for technical education come true, what would that dream be?

Blake Moret 

I think it would be to make this education universally accessible. You know, to be able to create delivery methods and to have pathways so that the maximum number of people throughout the country were able to access it. Because it’s such – it provides such a great foundation for so many of these in-depth careers that I think it’s not only important for the businesses that are hiring these people, but for the whole country to be able to ensure that that prosperity is maximally available for the broadest part of our people.

Matt Kirchner 

No question. So universally-available technical education. I know that will be music to the years of all of our listeners on The TechEd Podcast. Blake Moret, CEO and Chairman of Rockwell Automation, I want to thank you so much for taking some time with us here on The TechEd Podcast. We really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and your wisdom with our audience.

Blake Moret 

My pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed the time and the discussion.

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