Adam Pratt’s customers in the auto and aerospace industries are constantly pushing for lighter versions of the fasteners made by Sherex Fastening Solutions.
But for a company with 32 employees, it can be costly to replace conventional steel fasteners with new models made from lightweight materials such as carbon fiber.
That’s why Pratt, Sherex’s president, hopes for big help from the new advanced manufacturing center that is coming to Buffalo as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.
The $45 million Buffalo Niagara Institute for Advanced Manufacturing Competitiveness, which is expected to open by the end of the year, doesn’t get the attention of a solar-panel factory or a gaggle of Medical Campus buildings. But the institute is aimed at something just as important: a high-tech revival of manufacturing, Buffalo’s economic engine of the last century.
Despite the decades-long decline in local factory work, manufacturers still account for one of every 11 jobs in the region – currently about 50,000 local jobs – and those jobs tend to pay above-average wages. The region is home to more than 2,000 small- to medium-sized manufacturers.
The institute will give local manufacturers like Sherex, based in the Town of Tonawanda, access to research equipment and other tools that they can’t afford on their own.
“A lot of attention has been given to new business attraction, but the reality is we already have an enormous number of manufacturers in Western New York,” said Howard Zemsky, the local developer who is the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. “Helping them grow is an important part of our strategy.”
“We’re going into composite materials and exotic alloys,” Pratt said.”How do we get the advantage of using lightweight materials but still do it in a cost-effective manner?
“We want to be on the forefront of fastener technology,” he added.
‘This isn’t Henry Ford’
The creation of the advanced manufacturing institute has its roots in the Regional Economic Development Council’s study of the local economy three years ago, which identified advanced manufacturing as a sector in which the Buffalo Niagara region has a competitive advantage over other parts of the country because of a skilled workforce, a strong transportation network and the low-cost hydropower available to industry.
And while much of the low- and middle-skill factory work has shifted to cheaper markets in Mexico or overseas, the higher-skill work associated with advanced manufacturing has proven to be more resilient in Buffalo and throughout the United States.
“Focusing on advanced manufacturing is the way to go,” said Michael Ulbrich, a former Morgan Stanley executive who was hired in June to be the president of the Buffalo center.
“This isn’t Henry Ford’s production line kind of manufacturing anymore,” said Ulbrich, a Lancaster native and an industrial engineer by training. “We’re talking about robotics and nanoscale and things that didn’t exist a few years ago.”
Work currently is underway to build the institute, which will be located in the former SmartPill building at 847 Main St. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus bought the building with an $8 million grant from Empire State Development, and the institute is expected to stay in the Main Street location for at least the first five years of its existence.
EWI, a Columubs, Ohio-based non-profit engineering services research and development firm, will operate the advanced manufacturing center. While the physical site is months away from being ready, EWI officials have been working for months to develop detailed plans for the Buffalo institute, meeting with upwards of 150 representatives from 75 local manufacturers and industry groups to find out what kind of help they need and what type of equipment would be the most beneficial for the center to have.
“We want to help them evolve as manufacturers,” Ulrich said.
The center currently has four employees, but expects to hire six to eight more people by the end of the year, Ulrich said. Within five years, the center hopes to have more than 30 staff members.
A lab for ideas
While the details still are being worked out, the center’s focus will be on three main area: flexible automation, including the use of robotics in production; materials testing to help local companies incorporate ceramics and other advanced materials in their products; and process and fabrication support, including the use of 3-D printing technology in production.
EWI is working with Buffalo-based Insyte Consulting to help manufacturers make their production processes more efficient, and with the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara to help members sell to foreign customers.
“It’s probably one of the most important things that’s going to drive manufacturing in the area,” said Ben Rand, Insyte’s president.
“We’re not a low-cost supplier. It really is about innovation and new techniques,” he said. “It’s about being better, cheaper and faster.”
Companies working with the center essentially will use the facility as a laboratory to develop and test new products or processes, Ulbrich said.
“The companies aren’t going to be using our equipment to produce their products full-time,” said Ulrich, who currently works out of a temporary space in the Empire State Development office at 95 Perry St.
“The idea is that the equipment is in our lab and they’re using it to explore new technology,” he said. “They can leverage the resources we’ve been afforded to do things on a test scale.”
So far, a handful of companies, from Sherex, Harper International and Praxair, to Jiffy-tite, TAM Ceramics and the InVentures Group, have signed on for three-year commitments as founding members of the institute.
Members pay $25,000 a year to belong to the institute, but the center also will generate revenue from the services it provides to participating companies. EWI officials hope to generate more than $6 million in annual revenue by the time the Buffalo center is in its fifth year of operation.
“This is a long-term game here,” Ulbrich said. “This could be something that has a real lasting impact on our community.”