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Manufacturers eager to tap into center’s potential

Jiffy-tite is a Lancaster-based automotive parts supplier typical of many manufacturers in Western New York.

“The super-large companies have shrunk,” said Michael Rayhill, Jiffy-tite’s president. “What’s left of the manufacturing base now is companies like ours.” Jiffy-tite has about 300 employees.

Those smaller manufacturers also have limitations on what they can spend on research and development, or on specialized staffing.

“We can’t afford a huge R&D department with multimillion dollar equipment …” Rayhill said.

Enter Buffalo Manufacturing Works, a newly launched center designed to help companies like Jiffy-tite try ideas and technologies with a limited financial commitment.

The new center is a $45 million project supported by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative. It is located inside the former SmartPill building on Main Street at Virgina Street. Officials cut the ribbon on the center Wednesday – with help from a robot, naturally – aiming to help local companies increase their sales and jobs.

“It will help existing businesses grow and thrive while remaining competitive,” said Sam Hoyt, Empire State Development’s regional president. “Basically it will give our manufacturers a technical advantage that will lift them up. It’s all about improving local businesses’ competitiveness, throughout the region and globally.”

While large-scale Buffalo Billion projects like the SolarCity factory grab the headlines, Buffalo Manufacturing Works is a kind of high-tech proving ground for companies that pay for services there. For instance, a company might experiment with a certain process, or discover which type of robotic technology best fits its operations.

The new center is managed by Ohio-based EWI, which operates a similar center in Columbus, Ohio. Jiffy-tite actually began working with EWI through the Ohio center a few years ago and appreciated the results, Rayhill said.

“We got to experiment with their equipment and their expertise,” he said. “Now we know exactly what to order for equipment, how to specify the process, and build the product without having to experiment ourselves.”

The center also allows a company to test ideas while protecting its intellectual property, Rayhill said.

Sherex Fastening Solutions has all kinds of customers, including in the automotive, truck and trailer, aerospace and agricultural industries.

“Fasteners are pretty much in everything, so we operate in a lot of markets,” said Adam Pratt, president of the Town of Tonawanda-based manufacturer. “So because of that, we see a lot of challenges from our customers, trying to assemble all the different products that they manufacture.”

Pratt likes what the new center has to offer to a company like his, with just 50 U.S. employees. “It’s all from, ‘Hey, we’ve got this great idea, can you help us validate it to see if it would work?’, to, ‘We’ve got this issue in our manufacturing process, can you help us figure out a way to resolve this issue?’ Hiring a full-time person to do that just isn’t feasible when you’re a smaller company.”

Michael Ulbrich, president of EWI New York, said the Buffalo site only has about 10 percent of the advanced equipment it will ultimately contain. The center will add equipment gradually, to ensure it is relevant to companies’ needs. Among the equipment already on site are robots and 3-D printers. There is also a 3-D printing lab, sponsored by Praxair, that will allow students in grades 7 through 12 to experience that technology. The lab is expected to be ready for student use this fall.