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Cuomo plan doubles down on investment in manufacturing

Buffalo Manufacturing Works could be headed to a new home – and a bigger role in helping the region's companies become more innovative and more productive.

The second phase of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion plan would move the innovation hub from Main Street to the Northland Corridor on the East Side, partly to spread more of the program's benefits to a struggling neighborhood.

The proposal also greatly expands the innovation hub's broader mission.

What started out as a center to introduce manufacturers to new technologies and ways of doing things that they otherwise might have been too costly to do on their own is evolving into a center that also will play a key role in helping companies get the financing they need to put those new ideas into place.

It also will take on a broader role in helping to find and train the next generation of workers for the region's advanced manufacturing companies.

"Everything that has been proposed builds upon something that we already are doing," said Michael Ulbrich, the innovation hub's president. "It just allows us to do it on a more impactful level, and hopefully sooner, rather than later."

The Buffalo Billion II proposal, if approved by the state Legislature, would essentially double down on New York's investment in Buffalo Manufacturing Works.

  • The proposed move to the Northland complex and its planned worker training center would bring more of the region's business services to a single site, including Insyte Consulting, which already partners with the innovation hub, and Next Street, a Boston-based financial and business advisory firm.
  • The move likely would more than double the size of the Buffalo Manufacturing Works from its current 25,000 square feet, and the additional Buffalo Billion II funding would help triple the center's staff to around 60 people.
  • To help companies put the new technology and potential improvements in place, the Buffalo Billion II plan would help the center create a loan fund in the range of $6 million to $15 million that companies could combine with other borrowing sources to fund technology projects.
  • It also would allow the innovation center to vastly expand its advanced manufacturing STEM learning lab, which so far has helped introduce about 30 high school students to the role of science and mathematics in manufacturing.

"You cannot spend time with these people without being impressed by what they’re doing in such a short period of time,” said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who serves as president of Empire State Development. “They do a fabulous job.”

Not close to 'saturating the market'

Opened in April 2015 with the backing from $45 million in state funds through the original Buffalo Billion, the manufacturing center is focused on helping companies understand how new technologies – especially 3-D printing and robotics – can help them become more productive and competitive. The proposed second phase would pump another $35 million into the facility.

That's especially needed for small- and mid-sized manufacturers, who often can't afford to devote scarce resources to tracking down and trying out new technology. One of the Buffalo Manufacturing Works main services is to work with those manufacturers to help them understand how new technology can help them and allow them to test those ideas out on the center's cutting-edge equipment.

Ron Aman, left, senior engineer with EWI, and Frank Medina, technology leader for additive manufacturing, examine a product made in a 3D printer at Buffalo Manufacturing Works in Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"Often times the small manufacturers and the medium-sized manufacturers don't really know where they need the help," Ulbrich said. "We realized we needed to create this level of service that we help them diagnose their operations and help them create technology road maps."

"Things are just starting to click," Ulbrich said. "There's still a ton more we can do – no doubt about that. I don't think we're even close to saturating the market or saying 'mission accomplished' by any means."

The Buffalo Manufacturing Works has built a staff of 21, most experts in robotics and 3-D printing, which often is called additive manufacturing because it builds parts layer by layer, rather than conventional production techniques that start with a block of material and whittle it down to the desired shape.

Building parts from the ground up, layer by layer, allows manufacturers to produce highly intricate parts and can make it possible for engineers to redesign products in ways that wouldn't be possible with conventional techniques. But the additive manufacturing technology is relatively new – and in most cases, more expensive than conventional methods.

As the technology evolves, the expectation is that additive manufacturing will play a rapidly growing role in future production, first for highly customized and complex products, and then eventually for more conventional goods.

One of the biggest – and newest – pieces of equipment in the innovation hub is a $3.5 million machine that uses lasers to build products by melting layer upon layer of powdered metal. It's one of only seven in the world, and can make fairly large parts inside its 150-square-foot production space, Ulbrich said. Aircraft maker Airbus recently purchased one, but the owners of the others are shrouded in secrecy.

That puts the Buffalo Manufacturing Works in a unique position, since its member companies and other non-affiliated businesses can work with the innovation hub to see how it might work in their operations.

Chris Lee, left, an engineer on the advanced automation team, discusses a project with Buffalo Manufacturing Works CEO Michael Ulbrich. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

In the next month or two, the center will add a second, similar additive manufacturing machine that uses electron beams instead of a laser – a distinction that allows the incoming equipment to use different types of raw materials or operate at different speeds. That one will be just the fifth in the world, and the only one that is publicly available, Ulbrich said.

"We're developing a leadership position really quickly," Ulbrich said.

Less risk to try new ideas

The center now has $17 million in equipment tucked into the former SmartPill building on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and still has about $13 million in its budget to acquire more in the coming years.

But having all the fancy equipment in the world doesn't matter if you don't understand the technology and know how to use it.

"It comes down to the people, more than the equipment," Ulbrich said. "We mix the science with the process."

Manufacturers can work with the center’s engineers and other experts to flesh out their ideas and then test them on the center’s equipment. That’s usually much cheaper than making an upfront investment in equipment that could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars or going through the sometimes cumbersome process of partnering with another company.

It also makes it less risky for those companies to try out new ideas or learn how new technology can help them become more competitive – from robotics that can streamline assembly work to additive manufacturing systems that can produce intricate parts one layer at a time.

So far, about 60 manufacturers, ranging from Moog Inc. and Eastman Machine to Harper International and Praxair, have tapped into the innovation center’s resources. The center has worked on about 80 projects.

"You try to look for the companies that want to invest or are innovation-minded," said Francisco Medina Jr., who joined the innovation hub a year ago and now oversees its additive manufacturing initiatives.

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