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High-tech tour

Gilchrist’s U.P. visit spotlights innovation

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette With its components found aboard every surface ship in the U.S. Navy, Trident plant manager Tim Goard proudly displays a Made in USA patch.

HOUGHTON — On Saturday, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist along with a delegation including Michigan Technological University President Rick Koubek, became some of the first people to get early look at the university’s new H-STEM Engineering and Health Technologies Complex..

The building, approved by the Legislature in 2019 and partially funded by the state, will bring together students from across disciplines to work together on forward-thinking projects, sharing spaces and equipment. It is planned to be finished and occupied by March 2024.

Gilchrist said he and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have prioritized investing more resources into higher education since taking office. In July, Whitmer signed a budget with a record $24.3 billion in K-12 and higher education funding.

“Projects like this one that are adding to the research capacity and just the capacity overall of important places like Tech, it’s really exciting,” Gilchrist said. “I know that they’ll be thrilled to work in this new world-class workspace and research space. Researchers are going to come up with some of the new innovations that will continue to have Tech be the leader in so many areas, and to have it bringing together different disciplines into the H-STEM Center, there are going to be new technologies invented, new companies to spin out. That’s exciting and it will keep Tech a world-class institution.”

Earlier Saturday, Gilchrist stopped at the MTEC SmartZone in Houghton, where he visited with Leo Huhta of Huhta Logging, who is developing the Waldo app to help connect resources within the logging industry.

Damian Wolf/For the Mining Gazette Trident plant manager Tim Goard and Michigan Lt. Gov Garlin Gilchrist talk during a tour of the Ontonagon facility Sunday morning.

He also visited Saturday’s Tech football game against Ferris State.

Located along the shores of the Ontonagon River and Lake Superior, Trident Maritime Systems welcomed Gilchrist on a Sunday morning tour.

“We’re building really big stuff in here,” said plant manager Tim Goard as he led Gilchrist through the shipbuilding operation, pointing to a steel module that weighs in at 75 tons.

About nine employees on the weekend shift created a need for visitors to don safety glasses and ear protection in the facility that puts state-of-the-art equipment to work on fulfilling government and military contracts.

Gilchrist took special interest in an I-beam cutting process: a worker operated a room-sized machine, which Goard called Trident’s “pride and joy,” with the capability to cut slots and holes in massive steel structural components. This cutter is only one of about seven in the world.

Gilchrist, who has a background in computer engineering and computer software, said this process represents “our sweet spot in Michigan,” a successful collaboration between humans and programming.

With its components found aboard every surface ship in the U.S. Navy, Trident’s display of this operator-computer connection is a perfect example of “finding that balance” between hand procedures and automation, Gilchrist said. “In manufacturing in Michigan, we know how to combine hardware and software. … I’m really proud of that.”

The Trident plant in Ontonagon employs 47 full-time workers overall, a number which has increased by 37 since 2019.

“We want to grow every year,” said Goard, who noted that the company is always looking for skilled and talented people.

With operations in Iron River and Kingsford, Michigan, and Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Trident aims to strengthen its workforce, but affordable housing is needed in the region.

Gilchrist points to the newly passed Michigan budget, which allots $50 million for the Housing and Community Development Program to alleviate affordable housing needs across the state and revitalize downtown areas in Michigan.

“We’ll be providing for economic security for people all across this region. We’re excited to be investing in that for the first time ever in the history of our state.”

After Sunday’s stop in Ontonagon, he visited L’Anse Manufacturing, which manufactures stainless-steel products for initial prototypes, validation samples, or production parts across a variety of industries.

Gilchrist said one hope for the trip was to highlight the administration’s commitment to an investment in the growth of the outdoor recreation economy. The sector, already contributing $10.8 billion to the state economy, has potential to grow more, he said. On Friday, Gilchist announced Invest U.P. would receive $3 million to establish the Michigan Outdoor Innovation Fund, which will invest in startups innovating new technology in outdoor recreation.

A strong focus on outdoor recreation in the U.P. is important to continue to attract researchers and students of the type who will fill the H-STEM building, Gilchrist said.

“It’s also recognizing that the economy of the Upper Peninsula is diverse, and that I want all of those facets of the Upper Peninsula to thrive,” he said.

Gilchrist highlighted state aid to everything from small retail businesses to $200 million provided earlier this year to modernize the Billerud paper mill in Escanaba, the largest economic development project in the history of the Upper Peninsula.

“Hopefully folks see it’s a demonstration of how committed we are to the economic success of the U.P.,” he said.

Last year, Whitmer also created the Office of Rural Prosperity, part of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Gilchrist said the office will help create more touch points between community members and economic development leaders.

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