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How a Nearly Century-Old Textile Maker Went Digital

It’s no easy feat to transform a struggling family business into a thriving digital enterprise, but that’s exactly what Cooley Group President and CEO Dan Dwight is doing.

Change for the better: Cooley Group was formed in 1926 as a family-run textile manufacturer in Rhode Island. In 2011, Dwight, a member of the NAM Board of Directors, joined the company as president and CEO to navigate the ship through a new age of manufacturing and market demands.

  • Today, the private equity-backed extrusion and textile manufacturer is the leading global maker of polymer-coated textiles. Applications range from single-use blood-pressure-cuff materials, to proprietary urethane combat raiding crafts for U.S. special forces, to liners and covers for some of the world’s largest water reservoirs.

How they did it: “As a family-run business, Cooley inherited aging equipment and an aging workforce,” said Dwight, who also serves as vice chairman of the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s Board of Governors. (The MLC is the NAM’s digital transformation arm.)

  • “We not only modernized our equipment and infrastructure to compete in the digital age, but also revolutionized our culture. Hierarchies slowed us down.”
  • “Digital transformation isn’t only beneficial for the advancement of our physical technologies; it’s also critical to develop a more collaborative company culture that empowers employees at all levels to take action.”

Starting small: “Digital transformation—the integration of digital technology into all facets of an organization—can seem daunting at first,” Dwight said. “But that can’t deter an organization from jumping in.”

  • “I advise companies, particularly mid-sized manufacturers like Cooley Group, to approach digital transformation incrementally,” he said. “Don’t expect the cultural, institutional or technological benefits of digital transformation to manifest overnight as some mega-solution.”
  • “Think strategically about the areas of your business that are the first movers. Once one aspect of the business is modernized, the digital insights and team’s enthusiasm for change will build momentum to push the remaining pieces into place.”

Gaining momentum: The transformation of this firm of 300 people is ongoing. “Ten years ago, we had trouble keeping our equipment operating for any period of time,” Dwight said. “Now everything in all our factories is digitally [Manufacturing 4.0]-driven across a single operating platform.”

  • The company plans to do the pilot phase of an artificial intelligence implementation later this year.

Figuring it out: The MLC was key in Cooley Group’s remarkable transformation, according to Dwight.

  • “I’m not sure we would have figured it out on our own,” he admits. “I’m an avid reader; I was born excited to build things. I read a lot about manufacturing and leadership. But even if I could have figured out M4.0 strategy, actually implementing it on the plant floor would have been difficult without the support of MLC members to share best practices and to encourage the Cooley team to embrace transformation.”

Get involved: Companies can jumpstart their own digital transformation by attending Rethink, the MLC’s premier event for manufacturing executives, in Florida on June 26–28. Check it out here.

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