Photo of person using an iPad to control machinery

New federal planning grant to help manufacturers, workforce on Cleveland’s West Side adapt to “Internet of Things” connectivity

“Smart” technologies and connected systems—enabled by “the Internet of Things” (IoT)—are profoundly changing how people live and work.

To support research that helps communities understand and adapt to that transformational change, the National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated a Smart & Connected Communities (S&CC) program.

The program’s first round of funding, recently announced, totals $19.5 million for 38 projects involving researchers at 34 institutions nationally. Among them is a project led by researchers from Case Western Reserve University that centers on small and mid-sized manufacturing firms on Cleveland’s West Side.

“This grant brings together academic researchers in science, engineering and business management at two universities (including Cleveland State University), educators, community members and city leaders and small-to-mid-sized manufacturers—all within a neighborhood of Cleveland—to plan for research, education and workforce development in their community,” said Robert Gao, the project’s principal investigator.

The project’s team involves faculty at the Case School of Engineering and Weatherhead School of Management: Gao, the Cady Staley Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; and co-principal investigators Kenneth Loparo, the Nord Professor; Kalle Lyytinen, the Iris S. Wolstein Professor of Management Design and chair of the Department of Design and Innovation; and Susan Helper, the Frank Tracy Carlton Professor of Economics.

The team includes additional faculty and staff from the Case School of Engineering and Cleveland State, and leadership from WIRE-Net, a manufacturing-focused nonprofit economic development organization, and the Bellaire-Puritas Development Corp.

Target area

IoT is the term used to describe the internet-based interconnection of computing devices embedded in mechanical and digital machines and everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.

The geographic focus for the planning grant is Cleveland’s West Side, from near West 117th Street to the border of Brook Park, including the city’s Bellaire-Puritas and Jefferson areas and parts of West Park. The area, among the city’s strongest manufacturing districts, represents 183 manufacturers and related firms, with employment totaling about 7,600, according to the researchers.

The goal of the planning grant is to develop research, education and community teams of small manufacturers, university faculty from both engineering and business, non-profits, community development corporations, a school district and neighborhood residents.

The project will result in a plan, or “roadmap,” that integrates research, education and policy challenges to be solved to help small to mid-sized manufacturers adapt and plan for using IoT in their processes and business strategies.

Solutions will not only include technical and business issues, but how a workforce readies itself with appropriate skills and how a neighborhood prepares to integrate the new technologies to directly benefit the community—for example, smart roads that monitor traffic flow of goods to and from the factories.

Broad involvement

“This planning grant attacks the next technological wave—the IoT—from not only a technical viewpoint, but one that brings the community and residents into the conversation,” said Lisa Camp, the engineering school’s associate dean for strategic initiatives. “Solutions just can’t be handed down to the users. We need all levels of the system to engage in the process of helping the technology grow and figuring out how it best serves the needs of all involved—industry, government, schools, universities.”

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate, said WIRE-Net President John Colm, referring to his organization’s just-completed 2020 VISION strategic plan, which included extensive research into key challenges facing manufacturing in Greater Cleveland.

“The array of issues swirling around ‘Industry 4.0’ or digital manufacturing was second in priority only to the workforce challenges manufacturers face,” Colm said. “Automation, robotics, machine-to-machine communication, data analytics—these are all going to become more and present as we move ahead, and adapting to these will present serious challenges to small and medium-sized manufacturers.”

If successful, the project would serve as a model for small towns and communities to work with their local universities and manufacturers to benefit from leveraging IoT technologies.

NSF’s S&CC grant awards address a range of applications, including public safety, water systems, community health and wellness, energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, food systems and rural and urban planning.

For more information, contact Bill Lubinger at

This article was originally published Oct. 18, 2017.