State officials plan to open a new center in Buffalo to help local manufacturers develop innovative new products that they might not otherwise have the resources to do on their own.
Plans for an Advanced Manufacturing Institute still are being developed, but the project is expected to be one of the key initiatives backed by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” pledge.
The idea is to create a resource center where local manufacturers, especially small to midsize companies, can share resources and work with experts and engineers to develop new products and services that will make them more competitive in the global market and also help them push into new markets that will help their businesses grow.
“We don’t have a ton of companies that have the resources to provide these services on their own,” said Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the local development council, which will be briefed on the project during its meeting this morning. “Advanced manufacturing is an important piece of our economic puzzle.”
The development council has been working with EWI, an Ohio consultant that specializes in helping companies develop innovative products, to create a plan for the manufacturing institute, whose location in Buffalo has not yet been determined.
“This really is focused on filling a void in this region,” said Christina P. Orsi, regional director for Empire State Development Corp. in Buffalo. “This really doesn’t exist locally.”
Zemsky said the center is expected to cost “tens of millions” of dollars and could be operating by the end of next year. The initial plan for the institute is due to be presented to the development council during September, and Zemsky said the council also is seeking federal funding for the project.
The center is one of the key pieces of the development council’s broader plan for trying to invigorate the Buffalo Niagara region’s economy, which has been suffering from a lack of innovation and ranks comparatively low in the number of new patents generated by businesses here.
Council officials believe that advanced manufacturing can be one of the region’s centers of economic strength in the coming years, in part because of the availability of low-cost hydropower, ample water supplies and a central location that puts much of the Canadian and U.S. populations within an eight-hour drive. The region also has a pool of graduates flowing from its colleges and universities.
But the council has identified two factors that are holding back those advanced manufacturers: a shortage of workers with the skills that are needed in 21st century factories, and the difficulties that the region’s more than 1,500 small- to mid-sized manufacturers face in developing innovative new products.
“No one lives in a vacuum,” Zemsky said.
“If you can’t be competitive and innovative in manufacturing in a global economy, you’re not going to exist,” he said. “There’s no such thing as standing in place: You’re either moving forward or falling behind.”
To address those concerns, the council is working to create a workforce development center in Buffalo, as well as the manufacturing center. Sites have not been selected for either center, and it’s possible that both could be located within the same building to both reduce costs and create synergies between the training and research operations, Orsi said.
The concept behind the manufacturing institute is to create a center where manufacturers can work with engineers or use sophisticated equipment to help them turn ideas for new products into reality. Smaller companies typically can’t afford to take on those types of development projects individually, but the manufacturing center is expected to be able to allow those firms to pursue those projects at a significantly lower cost because they are sharing the center’s resources with other local businesses.
“Our mission is to advance manufacturing competitiveness for our members,” said Stephen Levesque, an EWI project manager who has been working on the Buffalo manufacturing center project since May. “It might be a process improvement or the next generation of a product.”
To develop the center’s plan, Levesque has been meeting with local manufacturers to help determine what types of technical skills and resources are in the greatest demand and could help companies in a broad range of industries.
“We focus on crosscutting technologies that will serve a vast number of manufacturers,” Levesque said. “We’re not likely to be all things to all people.”