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Are Smart Cities Worth the Investment?

Smart cities aren't just cool, they are empowering smart manufacturing initiatives.

Smart cities come in an array of different flavors. And in each instance, cities are finding creative new ways to apply the same connected technologies currently powering today’s most advanced production facilities to ultimately improve the community.  

These deployments often involve leveraging a mix of sensors and edge computing devices to drive new levels of efficiency and intelligence. This is true whether it’s technology is recognizing pedestrians in a blind intersection and instantly alert drivers (or autonomous vehicles) of the potential hazard; automatically shifting electricity transmission when there’s an issue on the grid; prompting sanitation to empty a full trash receptacle; or dispatching first response units and instantly rerouting traffic when an incident blocks the roadway.

Of course, creating a smart city isn’t cheap, which is why we don’t see more of them across the country, or globe for that matter.

Even though sensors and even the individual computing devices are relatively inexpensive, the success stories are not heavily dependent on the individual technologies. These consumer facing components simply provide the wow that captivates the citizens. Instead, its comprehensive infrastructure that makes the difference. Infrastructure that makes it possible to gather data, conduct near real-time analysis, enable insight driven actions as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities that continuously improve the operating environment.

That type of infrastructure – which understandably includes a substantial investment in a stable and redundant fiber and wi-fi network – can add up quickly. It also takes time to deploy.

Is it worth the investment?

If you ask community leaders who have gone through the process the answer is yes. After all, when a city, or more realistically a region, can effectively create a smart environment, it can have compounding benefits. Simply put, the same infrastructure powering the smart city can enable companies to more effectively utilize the technologies driving smart manufacturing. Meaning, at least in the short term, smart environments are instantly more attractive as manufacturers consider expansion and relocation opportunities.

Likewise, the citizen-facing aspects of the smart city are appealing to today’s professional. Who wouldn’t appreciate a city that dynamically eliminates its own headaches?

Case in point: Enabling a research and development (R&D) playground

The $93 million 33 Smart Mobility Corridor, which is part of the $600 million Columbus (Ohio) Region Connected Vehicle Ecosystem is a prime example of a smart region. Home to roughly 70 automotive centered manufacturers and R&D organizations including Honda who annually produces 645,000 vehicles within the sector.

The expansive partnership between a handful of governmental units and industry leaders is creating a heavily connected environment with a goal of creating “a playground for the testing of connected and autonomous vehicles,” says Eric Phillips, executive director for Union County-Marysville Economic Development.

The corridor includes an array of connected components including the transportation research center, a 206-acre innovation park, automotive mobility innovation center, unmanned aircraft systems as well as the city of Dublin with its smart signals, smart parking and innovation district. However, Marysville is perhaps the gem of the project. Marysville provides Honda with a fully contained, connected exurban city where drivers can experience a real-world environment including adverse weather conditions. When complete Marysville will sport full fiber connectivity, 27 smart signals, 1000 connected vehicles and online data repository.

“Since we are only using one of the seven ducts, the fiber investment alone creates availability for the future,” says Phillips. “The potential is appealing to progressive manufacturers. And as we further commercialize this, it will continue to provide better connectivity to our R&D businesses and manufacturers.”

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Case in point: Making designer dreams realities

In Chattanooga, TN, a $330 million investment enabled the city-owned power company, EPB, to build a comprehensive 600 square mile fiber deployment focused on improving regional transportation and utility efficiency. When the deployment went live, Chattanooga became the first city in the country with gig up/gig down internet, which ultimately created a hotbed for tech-centric manufacturers to thrive.   

Consider Branch Technology who tells IndustryWeek that access to a fast, reliable network is enabling them to “democratize design freedom” within the construction industry. “Computer design has long allowed designers to create magical worlds. However, the reality is trying to build those has been very expensive. As a result, a lot of amazing designs are value engineered into plain boxes because boxes are easier to build than faceted shapes or curves,” says Branch’s John McCabe.

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Branch combined 3D printers with industrial robots to transform itself into a full stack technology company creating code-compliant customized walls for the construction industry. “We do not need to be in the cities where our clients are, but we do need to be able exchange incredibly large files as we work through design iterations,” says McCabe. “Our bandwidth needs are intensive. All of our systems are cloud-based, without any real local storage. Today’s digital construction documents, digital models, movies and animations are all heavy files making network stability crucial.

Case in point: Riding the smart wave.

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American Bicycle Group (ABG) tells a similar story. ABG manufactures three brands of high-performance bikes – Quintana Roo (QR) triathlon bikes; Ocoee carbon all-road, gravel and mountain bikes; and Litespeed (LS) titanium road, gravel and mountain bikes in Chattanooga.  In 2017, ABG invested in an expanded manufacturing facility with a paint and assembly line for its QR and LS bikes, allowing athletes to custom build a bike. Demand was high and the line was expanded in 2018. In 2019, ABG launched their third brand, Ocoee Bikes, while expecting sales to continue in all three brands. 

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When ABG invested in a new facility, they knew there was an opportunity to also invest in the robust fiber optic in fracture available through EPB in Chattanooga. This allowed the company to make investments and be early adapters of a cloud-based ERP system and other web programs. This then gave the company mobility, without sacrificing access to information.

“This mobility now fosters a culture that is forward leaning and nimble. The company has continued this culture as they have evolved their distribution and marketing models online to be customer focused and fully integrated in today’s digital world,” says ABG’s Jamie Ann Phillips. “Additionally, and indirectly to this robust network, Chattanooga has now become a hub of young diverse talent as a result.” 

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