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Don’t try to tell Benjamin L. Rand that U.S. manufacturing is dead.

Rand, president of Insyte Consulting, a nonprofit firm that helps companies grow and solve problems, sees lots of life in the sector, even if some of the companies just go about their business quietly.

“Manufacturers are still investing in themselves in Western New York,” Rand said. “I think a lot of people believe manufacturing’s left the U.S., that this is all in China now somehow. And the reality is that we’re still far and away the No. 1 manufacturing economy in the world. And even in Western New York, you’ve got a lot of manufacturers who are still investing and growing and doing well.”

While Buffalo Niagara’s manufacturing employment is down 40 percent from 20 years ago, according to state data, the job count has risen slightly in each of the past two years. And some manufacturers say they are finding ways to succeed – by developing new products, ramping up training or branching into exports – despite an economy slow to recover from the recession’s depths.

The manufacturers that are growing are eager to dispel the notion that there are no jobs to be had in the sector – in fact, they say they often struggle to fill openings. And while what the companies make varies greatly, they have things in common, like investing in their operations and keeping their workers current with training or technology.

Rand said he has found plenty of manufacturers determined to innovate and build on their successes, instead of just holding their own and sticking with what has worked in the past.

“I think the best companies are the companies that recognize not how good they are, but how much more they have to do, how much better they could be,” Rand said. “And they just keep working at it. You can’t stop them, they’re never satisfied, they want to advance the ball.”

Polymer Conversions, based in Orchard Park, has worked with Insyte on a series of projects. The company finds the Buffalo area to be a good base for manufacturing, said Benjamin Harp, the chief operating officer. Workers here tend to have a technical background, be well-educated, and grew up in families that knew manufacturing, he said. “That was the conversation around the dinner table.”

Polymer makes plastic injected molded components used by medical product producers, and has grown to 92 employees. How does Harp assess the health of the manufacturing sector as a whole?

“I see companies doing very well, and I see a good percentage of manufacturing companies that are fighting it,” he said. “The world economy is still, I would say, conservative.”

Insyte has a unique vantage point on how the region’s manufacturers are faring, by working with myriad companies on projects, sometimes for an extended period of time. And those experiences can benefit future clients.

“A lot of what we bring to the party is the fact, not that we know your business better than you, but that having worked with hundreds of companies over 30 years and seen all kinds of problems, we can maybe bring some different perspectives that you haven’t thought of that we’ve seen in other industries or other companies,” Rand said.

A top concern that manufacturers ask Insyte for help with is increasing revenue, he said. “Maybe they need to diversify: all of their business or a huge percentage is with a single client. They want to enter new markets, they want to develop new products and they want to grow their revenue.”

Another key issue is “operational excellence,” finding ways to get their products out the door faster, cheaper or more reliably, and with less inventory stockpiled, Rand said.

The other billion

Insyte also has a window into the economic impact these companies are having in a five-county area. Since 2000, Insyte’s clients reported a combined $1 billion in economic benefits, a mix of new and retained sales; capital investments; cost avoidance; and jobs created or saved. (More information is available at www.theotherbuffalobillion.com)

The figures were reported by Insyte’s client companies to independent survey companies working for the U.S. Department of Commerce; some of Insyte’s funding comes from the federal government, and the surveys track its results.

Jack McGowan, a project manager with Insyte, called the numbers are “a sign of the good work these companies are doing and the progress that they make.”

Insyte – formerly known as the Western New York Technology Development Center – runs with a staff of 13 people at the Larkin at Exchange building. The nonprofit relies on a combination of the fees generated from its projects, and state and federal grants aimed at helping manufacturers.

Insyte works with clients of all sizes; how much they pay Insyte depends on the services they need, and what grants might be available. A client’s project might range in cost from as low as $5,000 to as high as $100,000. The length of projects varies widely, from as short as a few weeks to perhaps a year or more. Insyte sometimes brings in outside partners to provide specialized expertise, such as helping to register a company as a woman- or minority-owned business, to open up opportunities for more contracts.

For manufacturers, innovations and improvements come in different forms.

A few years back, Curtis Screw decided to consolidate its operations from two locations into a single, new site, with Insyte’s help. More recently, Curtis has used its own in-house training program to get new hires ready to work on the production floor, after struggling to find workers with the skills it needed, said James Frost, the Buffalo plant’s general manager.

Curtis’ Buffalo plant has about 175 employees and continues to win new work with auto manufacturers; even now, it is quoting bids for work that is still a few years out, Frost said.

Curtis’ experience is proof that manufacturers based here can still compete, Frost said. “You’ve got to be creative and tap the talents and you’ve got to be willing to invest in people.”

Robert Denning, the chief executive officer of Perry’s Ice Cream, credits Insyte with helping to put the Akron-based company “on a path for success.” Perry’s ended up expanding into international sales, which now account for 10 percent of its total sales, and has adopted what he described as more “customer-friendly” packaging.

The company has also grown from 250 full-time employees and $64 million in sales in 2007 to 310 employees and about $86 million in sales this year.

Denning said he believes relative to the rest of the country, Buffalo-area manufacturers are “doing quite well.” Food manufacturers are showing particular strength within the sector, he said.

Talent search

Rand said among manufacturers, the most pressing challenge is finding workers with the right skills to fill job openings. Denning calls that issue “one of the bottlenecks to growth.”

Rand said he feels the problem stems from not enough young people going into disciplines such as engineering that manufacturers rely on, rather than from employers not paying enough to attract talent.

“If you look at the national pay rate, manufacturing actually pays significantly more than non-manufacturing jobs,” he said. “That suggests, to me anyway, that on a relative basis you would be making more in manufacturing.”

Denning said manufacturers are working to update their public image, to demonstrate how high-tech they have become. “We’re now trying to change the perception, that manufacturing can be the preferred career of choice.”

Programs like “Dream It, Do It” are trying to stimulate students’ interest young people in manufacturing careers. And Rand said manufacturers can enhance their own image by using social media and getting on “best workplaces” lists.

“Those can all can have a big impact on how attractive you look to the workforce as a potential employer,” he said.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com